Is Justin Verlander Back?

A month ago, I ridiculed Justin Verlander. He had just come off a start during which he allowed seven earned runs and couldn’t escape the fourth inning. Through his first six 2015 starts, he posted a 6.62 ERA with only 5.82 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9).

Like clockwork, he showed up to his next start in Boston and twirled a gem, throwing eight strong innings but failing to factor into the decision, as the game went into extra innings.

Then he went to Tampa Bay (well, St. Petersburg, but who’s keeping track) and cranked out another eight innings with a whopping 10 strikeouts. The last time he strung together two straight eight-inning starts was almost exactly three years ago — July 15 and 20, 2012. Last time he struck out 10-plus batters? His final start of 2013.

To cap it off: in his six starts since my crucifying post, he has averaged more than seven innings per start en route to a 1.67 ERA. In his most recent five, he has struck out more than a hitter per inning (9.51 K/9). He served up a stinker on Aug. 4, ceding five earned runs to the Royals, but it’s easy to write off considering the dominant starts preceding and following it.

So, let’s dissect JV’s last six starts. Conveniently, five of them coincide perfectly with the “last 30 days” split on FanGraphs’ leaderboards, which works because the first of the six preceded Verlander’s strikeout rate surge.

In the last 30 days, Verlander’s 1.80 ERA ranks 7th and his 9.51 K/9 15th of all starting pitchers. His strikeouts minus walks (23.1 K-BB%) ranks sixth. His xFIP, however, ranks 28th in that time span due to an alarmingly low ground ball rate (30.3 GB%) that ranks third-worst among the list.

You can’t avoid home runs if you can’t induce ground balls. Fortunately for him, Verlander has done it the old-fashioned way by preventing hard contact, his 19.8-percent hard-hit rate (Hard%) ranking seventh overall. A 15.2-percent infield fly rate (IFFB%) will also help diminish the ill effects of a fly ball rate (FB%) north of 50 percent.

Moreover, the K’s seem legit given his 12.3-percent swinging strike rate (SwStr%, ranks 11th) and absurdly low 79.7-percent zone contact rate (Z-Contact%, ranks 3rd) — emphasis on the “absurd” part.

That’s because Verlander’s full-season Z-Contact% has consistently hovered north of 83 percent every season (except when it randomly pegged 79.0 percent in 2012). And that was during his prime.

In fact, only 17 player-seasons have achieved sub-80-percent zone contact rates dating back to 2002. It’s reasonable to suspect, then, that some of the strikeouts will disappear when the anomaly regresses toward the mean.

But what if it’s not simply a matter of luck? I came here to find reasons to validate Verlander, not condemn him (eh, I kind of did). Perhaps there’s something buried deep in his peripherals that can explain not only surface-level statistics such as ERA but also the underpinnings such as his hard-hit or swinging-strike rates.

Jackson, a reader, points to JV’s velocity in a comment last night on my aforementioned post:

I guess no one noticed Verlander throwing 96 mph again.

That’s a promising lead, but further investigation yields few results. Verlander’s average fastball velocity by game has remained steady all season, lingering primarily between 92.3 and 92.7 mph (eight of 13 starts) with a season-high in-game average of 93.5 mph, which came prior to his recent surge.

Moreover, Verlander’s single fastest pitch this season (97.0 mph) still falls short of previous seasons and continues a trend of declining maximum and average velocities:

Justin Verlander’s Fastball Velocity
Year Min Max Avg
2011 91.1 101.4 95.0
2012 91.1 101.5 94.7
2013 91.1 99.9 94.0
2014 91.1 98.0 93.1
2015 91.1 97.0 93.0
*At 91.1 mph, PitchF/X can’t differentiate his fastballs from changeups.

(There’s also this FanGraphs-produced image, but since it doesn’t date back before 2013, it’s not as useful as it could be.)

Verlander’s fastball is inducing a career-low ground ball rate (23.1 GB%) and it’s not even close. Normally, I’d say that’s a bad thing because fewer ground balls means more opportunities to allow home runs. But Verlander is also inducing a career-best infield fly rate (34.4 IFFB%) and it, too, is what I call “not even close.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Verlander’s fastball hasn’t moved this much since 2010, and it has never achieved more than 10.5 inches of rise. (To be exact, it’s at 10.6 inches for the season and 11.0 in his last six games.) I noted in the table above that 91.1 mph is essentially PitchF/X’s artificial lower bound for his fastball readings. If you assume that his slowest fastball has declined in speed the way his fastest fastball has, then (1) his average fastball velocity may actually be lower, but also (2) the increasing rise in his fastball seems to correlate with his declining velocity.

It’s no surprise that the same pitchers who crack the top 30 all-time in terms of fastball rise (Koji Uehara, Chris Young, Joe Nathan, etc.) are repeat offenders on the top-30 infield fly list as well. I’d guess most infield flies do not qualify as hard hits, although I’m sure a 100-mph infield fly gets launched into the air occasionally.

Yet more pieces seem to fall together. During Verlander’s recent 10-strikeout domination of the Rays, his fastball rose more than it had dating all the way back to the middle of 2013 — a whopping 12.7 inches on average. During his seven-inning hushing of the Astros Aug. 15, it rose more than 11 inches. The last time it rose 11 inches: Verlander’s final start of 2014, an eight-inning, six-strikeout shutdown of the White Sox.

Ironically, Verlander did not induce that many infield flies in any of the three starts mentioned in the previous paragraph. But his hard-hit rates? All south of 20 percent. Twelve paragraphs later and I’m finally breaking through on his Hard% and IFFB% and all that junk.

It’s hard to say if this is a legitimate trend, though. Going back to that Rays outing, Verlander’s fastball rose the most at its relatively slowest velocities:

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… and he mostly lived up in the zone:

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… but that kind of livin’ seems like it can become dangerous quickly.

Lastly, his fastball has lead to his highest chase rate (O-Swing%) and second-lowest out-of-zone contact (O-Swing%) since 2009 — two factors that will definitely bolster a pitch’s effectiveness.

But maybe, after all this, it’s not even his fastball that has changed — despite its velocity, it never really was his bread-and-butter pitch. Maybe he has tinkered with something else in the last month. But by pitch usages, velocities, movements… nothing looks strikingly different between the periods of time preceding and following my post that jinxed JV for the better. There are some subtler differences, but we’re not seeing much in the way of overwhelming improvements in results for each pitch.

2015 PitchF/X Splits
vFA FA-X FA-Z vSL SL-X SL-Z vCU CU-X CU-Z vCH CH-X CH-Z
First Six 93.1 -6.8 10.1 86.0 0.6 3.7 80.6 3.8 -3.8 86.6 -8.1 7.6
Last Six 92.9 -6.4 11.0 85.9 1.1 4.8 79.1 6.5 -3.8 87.5 -7.4 8.8
v = velocity, X = horizontal movement (in.), Z = vertical movement (in.)

I do see that his pace (time between pitches) has slowed considerably. However, Verlander was likely working faster in games early in the season because there were always runners on base. It’s hard to say, therefore, if his pace has affected his groove

Also, I see that he’s getting more movement on his slider lately, producing real, non-negative value with the pitch. His 18.2-percent SwStr% on the season for the pitch is only minimally above average, however, and his .256 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) induced seems like the value could be flimsy. To attest: his slider’s strikeout and walk rates are currently both career worsts for Verlander.

Double-also, Baseball Reference has some interesting metrics, and its percentage of strikeouts looking is particularly interesting here: 29 percent of Verlander’s strikeouts have resulted in backwards K’s.

Justin Verlander’s Strikes Looking
Year % Strikes Looking % Strikeouts Looking
2012 25.2% 24.3%
2013 26.4% 24.4%
2014 25.3% 23.3%
2015 23.9% 29.0%

It’s a rather large spike, especially in light of his declining rate of looking strikes over time. In other words, a disproportionately large number of his looking strikes are being called strike three. Unfortunately, I can’t differentiate when among his 13 starts the looking strikeouts occurred — they could have all come prior to his recent surge for all we know. Still, that magnitude of reliance on non-swinging strikes simply won’t sustain success.

After a lot of rambling, I haven’t really reached a meaningful verdict. That’s a testament to my analysis, but it’s also a testament to the lack of conclusive evidence (that I can find) distinguishing Verlander’s first six miserable starts from his recent seven amazeballs starts.

No, Verlander’s fastball velocity is not back. Yes, his fastball is rising more, and it may be related to his velocity (and, thus, sustainable). Yes, he has induced less hard contact recently. No, I do not really know why. Yes, he’s striking out a lot of hitters by coaxing a lot of swinging strikes lately. But he’s also getting lucky on looking strikes, too, and his zone contact rate – directly correlated with his swinging strike rate — seems unlikely to continue. Yes, he’s limiting hard contact, but he’s also allowing more fly balls than ever.

I hesitate to even make a recommendation on what to do with Verlander or assess his short-run and long-run value. Personally, I still don’t fully trust him. Even if he continues to rack up strikeouts and limit walks, I anticipate he will eventually be victimized by the long ball. Like Mike Fiers in April and May, it will be a painful high-K, high-ERA kind of situation.

Still, there’s a chance Verlander can be very helpful to you the rest of the way — with no guarantees about next year — if he induces swings-and-misses and hits spots well enough to limit damage on contact.

We hoped you liked reading Is Justin Verlander Back? by Alex Chamberlain!

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Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant. Reigning FSWA Baseball Writer of the Year and 5-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's Sports' Fantasy Baseball magazine (2018, 2019). Now a Tout Wars competitor.

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Zoolander
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Zoolander

Nice article – I think there are too many nonbelievers based on the lack of comments on the article. Love to see him maintain what he has done for balance of the season.