Tipping Pitches: A Deeper Look at Justin Verlander

Maybe it’s unfair to do a “what’s wrong with this guy?” piece on a guy the night after he goes 7 IP, 6 H, 1 BB, 1 ER, 5 K, but I don’t think a strong outing against KC does much the quell the concerns those have with Justin Verlander. I decided to write this up last night after watching the outing and learned quickly this morning that I wasn’t the only one still concerned as I received this text:

I pay people to address me as that in texts and real life conversations. LOL, just kidding, I don’t have real life conversations. On the year, Verlander has a 4.50 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 21% K, 10% BB, 9% SwStr, and 1.2 HR in 68 IP. I dug into the numbers and here are the findings:


The first place I looked was the high fastball. It was a pitch that returned as a major weapon in his arsenal back in the second half of 2015. He continued to lean on it and it helped spur last year’s Cy Young-worthy season. He threw fastballs in the upper third 51% of the time, 4th-most in the league, yielding a .130/.224/.275 line with a 41% K rate in 239 PA. This year, he’s down to 42%. That still ranks as 8th-most, but a substantial drop from last year. If he continued at this pace and made 34 starts again, it would net 54 fewer plate appearances ending with high heat and he still has a .143/.300/.184 line and 32% K rate with it this year, so it’s seemingly not an effectiveness issue.


Although, maybe it is kind of an effectiveness issue because he has to work harder for that success with the high heat. It has been fouled off on 54% of swings, up from 45% last year. This is an issue with the fastball regardless of location. His 51% foul ball rate (again, that fouls per swing) off the fastball is 2nd-highest in the league, behind only Dan Straily at 52%. They just aren’t missing the pitch as much with his swinging strike rate dropping from 14% (tied with Rick Porcello for the MLB best) to 10%, which still ranks 16th when you push the decimal (9.6%), but again represents a big drop-off from last year.


This is another pervasive issue for Verlander. It’d be one thing if it was just the fastball, but all four pitches are down in swinging strike rate.

SwStr by Pitch
Pitch 2016 2017 Chg.
FB 14% 10% -4%
SL 16% 13% -3%
CH 17% 15% -2%
CB 9% 7% -2%

The overall drop in swinging strike rate has gone from 12% to 9% and it would seem that the drop can almost entirely be attributed to batters not chasing as much. Last year he had an O-Swing rate of 34%, good for ninth in the league, and this year it’s down to 30% (33rd in MLB). Here are the swinging strike rates out of the zone by pitch:

SwStr by Pitch Out of the Zone
Pitch 2016 2017 Chg.
FB 11% 5% -6%
SL 19% 16% -3%
CH 19% 16% -3%
CB 10% 8% -2%


Simply throwing strikes has been tougher for Verlander this year, too, and that no doubt impacts every aspect of getting outs. His strike rate has dipped from 67% to 64% and the walk rate has ballooned to 10%, a career-worst mark. We again focus on the fastball to further pinpoint the trouble. In three-ball counts he threw a strike 80% of the time with the fastball last year. This year it’s down to 71%, taking him well below the 76% average.

It seems as if his stuff isn’t as sharp as it was last year with the fastball being the chief offender. Now the real question is whether it’s a flat out degradation of the stuff, injury, or something fixable that requires a tweak or two to get him on his way. Major control issues can sometimes be a precursor to elbow injury so I can’t ignore the jump from 6% to 10% in walk rate. For now, I’m holding on with Verlander, but I can’t see enough to encourage an active buy for me.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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I forgot the name of your series was “Tipping Pitches” as that was a rumor about Verlander earlier in the year.

Verlander goes really deep into games (108 pitches *on average*), and the increased velocity worries me a lot when it comes to an injury.