Alright, I think it’s finally time to address what might possibly be the biggest elephant in the room during the 2013 season — what the heck is going on with Justin Verlander? And not only that, but is this the end of his reign as an elite starting pitcher?
With six years and $160 million left on his new contract, Tigers management and fans definitely don’t want to start having this conversation.
Now, before we investigate why Verlander has been struggling this year, let’s remind ourselves just how bad the numbers have been.
His 3.73 ERA and 3.54 FIP are easily his worst marks since his disastrous 2008 campaign (4.84 ERA, 4.18 FIP). The same can be said for his 22.0 K% and 8.5 BB% marks this year (18.5 K%, 9.9 BB% in 2008).
In addition to his bloated ERA and lack of control, he’s allowing batters to get on base at a 31.6% clip, which he hasn’t done since his 2006 rookie season (31.8%). In fact, from 2007-2012, Verlander was allowing batters to get on base at a much better 27.9% rate. As a result, it’s not surprising that Verlander has posted an Ubaldo-esque 1.36 WHIP this year.
Clearly something is wrong, so let’s start diving into the numbers shall we?
Recently, we’ve seen another perennial ace deteriorate right before our eyes, albeit at a much older age. Roy Halladay‘s pitch velocity has been a topic of discussion for about three years now, and in the last two we’ve finally seen his career come to an abrupt end.
Now, it’s a well-known fact that Verlander’s lost a little zip on his fastball. However, while his four-seamer has gone from 95.07 MPH in 2012 to just 93.72 MPH this year, his velocity has actually gotten better during the season. Just check out this nifty chart from BrooksBaseball.net:
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Unfortunately for Verlander, his best months this year came in April and May when his velocity was at its lowest. It doesn’t seem the increase in velocity has done him any favors.
Since there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between his pitch velocity and success this year, we’ll have to dig a little deeper.
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The chart above shows Verlander’s pitch usages to both left-handed hitter (LHH) and right-handed hitters (RHH) from 2009-2012 as well as 2013. Noticeable drops in pitch usage this season were denoted with a red arrow.
Note: Verlander’s increase in sliders thrown vs. right-handed batters seems more drastic than it is. He actually started throwing more sliders in recent years so 2013 is merely following that trend.
There are two important tidbits to take from the chart above:
- Verlander is showing less confidence in his fastball
- He isn’t using his curveball, which is considered his best pitch, as an “out pitch” vs. right-handed batters.
From 2009-2012, Verlander would throw his fastball ~73% of the time when he fell behind a hitter, which is expected as pitchers generally have the most control over their fastball. There has been a downward trend, however, vs. right-handed batters as Verlander has dipped from ~73% from 2009-2011 to 66% in 2012 to 62% this season. This screams decreased confidence, which could be caused by Verlander’s decreased velocity.
The second distinction from the chart is Verlander’s decreased usage of his curveball as an “out pitch” vs. right-handed batters. His curveball is regarded as both his best pitch and one of the best in the game — Verlander’s curveball has rated in the top eight in baseball in terms of value per 100 pitches in each of the last two seasons. If it was an effective “out pitch” as recently as 2011 and 2012, then why the drop from 27% to just 18%?
We’ve now recognized two pitches that Verlander has cut down on in situations when they should be used the most. Seeing as he’s relied on these pitches his entire career, we may be onto something here.
RAA stands for Runs Above Average.
Aha! According to FanGraph’s Pitchf/x pitch values, Verlander’s worst two pitches have been his fastball and his curveball — they are they only pitches that have rated below average.
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In this chart we can see how effective each of this four pitches have been both this season and in the past. I was surprised to see his 2013 curveball hasn’t yielded much different results than in the past. Sure, the K% has dipped slightly in 2013, which could explain the dip in using it as an “out pitch,” but overall the numbers are consistent. We’ll get back to this.
The same cannot be said about Verlander’s fastball as there’s a significant dip in K% (19.0% to 14.9%) and increase in BB% (9.0% to 13.3%). Also, batters are smacking his fastball around to the tune of a 25.9% line drive rate, which has led to a higher than normal .294 BAA (vs. .253 from 2009-2012).
It should also be noted that Verlander’s new “out pitch” vs. right-handed batters — the slider — is generating plenty of whiffs (40.0%), but when batters make contact they are hitting it hard (27.4 LD%).
Finally, Verlander’s changeup doesn’t seem to be as effective, mainly in the strikeout department. He’s seen a major decrease in whiff rate (37.1% to 28.5%) and K% (25.7% to 14.3%).
It didn’t sit right with me that Verlander’s curveball was being used less often and was less effective, yet the results were generally identical to the rest of his career. Sure, maybe he’s picking his spots better, but there had to be something else.
I found the culprit, thanks to some help from my fellow Professor Bryan Curley, in Verlander’s pitch movement data:
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Note: Negative vertical values indicate downward movement; positive horizontal values indicate movement away from a right-handed hitter.
Since 2012, Verlander’s curveball has become flatter. His vertical movement has gone from -8.0 inches in 2012 to just -7.3 inches in 2013, and his horizontal movement has decreased from 6.8 inches to 4.9. In 2013 alone, his vertical movement has decreased each month and his horizontal movement has hit career low marks in the last two months.
Add in the fact that his curveball velocity continues to decrease and you have a pitch that is flatter, straighter, and slower — that’s not a good combination.
So, what does this all mean in the end? Well, it means that Verlander isn’t pitching to the level of effectiveness we’ve become accustomed to over the last seven seasons. Should Tigers fans be worried?
Yes and no.
He’s a guy who has spent the better part of the last seven season throwing 200+ innings and constantly hitting in the upper-90s on the radar gun so would I be shocked if his arm is starting to wear down? No, in fact we are starting to see some evidence in his decreased velocity.
This doesn’t mean I am declaring 2013 the end of Verlander’s career. Not even close. However, I do believe we are seeing the curtains close on Verlander’s “Act I.”
He’s an uber-talented pitcher who will have to learn to rely more on his secondary pitches and utilize his fastball more as a set-up pitch, much like we saw Halladay do in his late stages.
Verlander will turn 31 in February, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw him play out the majority of his new contract, which ends in 2019. However, his remaining years won’t be comparable to the Felix Hernandez‘s or Clayton Kershaw‘s of the league, but more the James Shields or Mat Latos echelon of starting pitchers.