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Reinventing Justin Verlander: Explaining a Former Cy Young Winner’s Struggles

Can the 2011 AL Cy Young Award winner retool his approach with lower velocity or does his future hold something else? Felipe Melecio investigates.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Verlander, former Cy Young, American League MVP, and AL Rookie of the Year award recipient, will be making over $20 million per year in the next six years. Let that sink in for a bit. Among qualified starting pitchers, he owns one of the worst ERAs, Walks Per Nine Innings (BB/9) as well, Batting Average Against, and WHIPs (Walks Plus Hits (Allowed) Per Innings Pitched) in all of baseball. Despite the struggles, Verlander gets paid the same amount. That’s food for thought for the Detroit Tigers who have looked more like the Philadelphia Phillies than a team that played for the AL pennant in 2013.

At age 31, Verlander should, technically, still be in his prime. Verlander should still be considered a top-of-the-rotation pitcher and at worst a number three starter. In 2013, Verlander posted respectable numbers, but nowhere near the Cy Young figures we’re used to seeing from him. This season, we have witnessed a complete train wreck. The biggest culprit for Verlander’s struggles has been a high Walk Rate (BB%) of 9.4 percent. We have not seen Verlander issue this many walks since 2008. That year, Verlander went 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA and he also posted his lowest Strikeout Rate (K%) of his career (18.5 percent). In 2014, Verlander has a K% of 15.8 percent.

The drop in strikeouts would be tolerable if it wasn’t for the increase in walks. Because of the increase in walks, the advanced metrics do not suggest a pitcher that is a product of bad luck or whose skills are much better than what has been displayed. Most of the advanced stats show that Verlander is a mediocre pitcher. Verlander’s Field Independent Pitching (FIP–basically takes into account a pitcher’s ability to strikeout hitters, limit walks and home runs) is sitting at a high 4.09 (though it’s still better than his current ERA of 4.98). Once again, this is also the highest mark he’s posted since 2008.

Batted Balls

So Verlander is not dominating like we’re accustomed to seeing, but many Verlander believers (Verlievers?) will point to a high BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play–the number of batted balls that go for hits against a pitcher) of .326. If that number can drop towards his career average of .290, we might see some improvements and a more effective pitcher. However, Verlander doesn’t induce a lot of ground balls to be an efficient ground ball pitcher. He’s also not a fly ball pitcher, though he induces plenty of infield pop ups. Throughout his career, Verlander has been a one-to-one pitcher: for every ground ball he induces, he sees virtually the same amount of balls in play that go in the air. A pitcher does not have to be categorized in either the ground or fly ball group to be a good pitcher and keep control of his BABIP. However, it creates more random outcomes from balls in play. Also, add the fact that the Detroit Tigers have one of the worst defenses in the league, and we are witnesses to a recipe for disaster. Verlander’s current Skills-Interactive ERA (SIERA–like FIP, but also accounts for balls in play) stands at 4.68. Once again, it’s the highest since 2008.

If there is something to be optimistic about when it comes to Verlander’s batted balls and how they may affect his BABIP, he does have a really low Line Drive Rate (LD%).  At 16.4 percent, his LD% is the ninth lowest among qualified starters. Verlander also continues to do a marvelous job in keeping the ball in the ballpark. So far this season, Verlander’s Contact Rate stands at 80.2 percent–again, the highest it’s been since 2008. Despite the increase in contact, it’s not like Verlander is getting lit up. It would appear that hitters are making enough contact where balls in play are falling for base-hits. When taking into account the terrible defense behind him and we can see why he has a high WHIP and BABIP.

Nevertheless, the increase in batted balls in play does not excuse a horrible walk rate. Command and control issues are clearly obvious based on those numbers alone. Based on his Plate Discipline figures, we can see that hitters are no longer chasing at pitches outside of the strike zone. His overall Swinging Percentage has dropped to 47 percent. That figure was at 48.5 percent in 2013 and 49.5 percent in 2012. And as mentioned, his Contact Rate is up, but his Z-Contact Rate (per fangraphs, this is “the percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with inside the strike zone when swinging the bat”) of 85.7 percent (among league leaders, this is not a high percentage, but it is for a guy like Verlander) suggests that hitters are indeed not being fooled to chase after pitches outside the strike zone and are taking advantage of pitches within the strike zone.

Velocity

And of course, there is a concern of drop in velocity of his fastball. This season, we have seen Verlander’s velocity drop to an average of 92.6 miles per hour. Not only is there a drop in velocity, but we’re seeing a downward trend in terms of usage of his fastball. Verlander is throwing it less and we’re seeing an increase in his breaking pitches, especially his slider. Without being able to overpower hitters with an other-worldly fastball, Verlander cannot fool hitters into chasing his secondary pitches for strikeouts. Or perhaps, he can’t throw his secondary pitches for strikes, which would explain his control and command issues for this season.

At any rate, as we’ve heard from every baseball analyst on the radio and television, it is close to universally agreed upon: Verlander is simply re-learning how to pitch and not be so dependent on an above-average fastball. A drop in velocity does not mean the end of the world as we saw last year from these five pitchers who lost zip on their fastballs. Even Wade Davis, a disaster as a starter, has flourished as a relief pitcher for the Kansas City Royals. Andrew Cashner has looked like a future ace for the San Diego Padres. Another pitcher that has had issues with decrease in velocity and issues with control is Tim Lincecum. Previously, an assessment was made on Lincecum before the start of the 2013 season where it was noted that a pitcher with Lincecum’s talent should not be struggling this much with control.

Future

But one can’t help but be reminded of the 2012 postseason, where Lincecum helped the San Francisco Giants win a title by relinquishing his role as a starting pitcher and coming out of the bullpen for those playoffs. Based on the longevity of Verlander’s contract, decrease in velocity, and recent success from a change in role from other struggling starting pitchers, it may not be a bad idea to perhaps reinvent Verlander into a relief pitcher, perhaps as soon as this season. It would help preserve Verlander’s arm, he can continue to pitch at a high velocity (instead of trying to pace himself as a starting pitcher), and it would only help the struggling Tigers’ bullpen. It’s an extreme suggestion, but one that the Tigers would be very wise to consider.

All stats are courtesy of fangraphs.com.

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