Picking apart Verlander’s outing and his season
The good news for the Tigers fans: They know Justin Verlander’s upper-90s fastball is still there.
The bad news? They have no idea where it’s going. Neither, for that matter, did Verlander.
His fastball had been averaging just over 92 mph, according to STATS, and had topped out at 98 a couple starts ago. On Thursday, his fastball averaged 96, and at least according to brooksbaseball.net, hit 100 for the first time this season. The pitch in question registered at 99 on MLB.com Gameday as well as on the Fox Sports Detroit broadcast, so there’s some question about that.
He threw 20 pitches at 95 or harder, 17 of them in that disastrous third inning alone. But he wasn’t locating many of them.
A look at the pitch-by-pitch data on Gameday shows that of those 17 95+ mph fastballs, seven were balls, six were fouled off, two were swings and misses (including that Lance Berkman strikeout on a pitch to the backstop), and one was a called first-pitch strike. The last was the Geovany Soto home run.
A look at the line graph on pitch velocities from brooksbaseball shows just how much Verlander cranked up his fastball and shrugged off his offspeed as that third inning unfolded. He pretty much ditched the curveball in that last inning in favor of fastballs and sliders, with the occasional changeup.
To compare a 30-year-old Verlander to the kid who broke into the league in 2006 might be a little unfair. Just comparing Verlander this year to what he did the past couple seasons, though, reveals some differences, not just from velocity.
The fastball velocity has been well-documented. More subtle is that he actually has been using his fastball slightly more than last year — 58 percent of his pitches this season, according to STATS, compared with 56% last year and 57% in 2011. His strike percentage on his fastball is slightly down, from 68% to 67%, but still strong.
The results from hitters are where the difference shows. Hitters are swinging and missing at a 17.5% rate on his fastballs, down from last year but about the same as 2011. Yet he’s getting hitters to chase his fastball out of the strike zone at a much higher rate than last year, and miss at a higher rate. When they swing at a fastball in the strike zone, however, their miss rate of 15.5% is down from 19.8% last year. It’s more on part with 2011.
When hitters put Verlander’s fastball in play, they’re batting .313, compared with a .283 mark last year and .234 in 2011.
So what’s the issue? Verlander told reporters last night he had been tinkering a bit too much in search of his velocity. However, he said a day earlier that the work he did was “fine-tuning” and nothing major, work mainly meant to get his body in sync.
“I’ve been spoiled the last couple of years by being in pretty good sync with my delivery,” Verlander said afterwards.
While the velocity drop raised concern that he wasn’t healthy, the abundance of sliders he threw Thursday and in his starts leading up to that — a pitch that puts stress on the elbow — would seemingly counter any argument about an injury.
Remember, health was a question being raised in 2008, including Jack Morris when he saw Verlander pitch in Minnesota early that year. Verlander made it through the season, then began the climb to the league’s elite the next year. So history shows it’s worth being careful with questions about Verlander’s arm.