Justin Verlander ‘s outing yesterday again lacked domination. He was bailed out by the Tigers' much-maligned bullpen's greatest asset, Drew Smyly, in addition to Boston's defense. Max Scherzer has replaced Justin Verlander as "must-see tv". With 16 starts under his belt, or about half a season, it is time to dig deep into the numbers and look for a cause. I am relying on Fangraphs for the data.
First question: is Verlander still striking guys out? If the batter strikes out, it leaves no room for bad luck with balls falling in just out of reach, or landing in the front row for a home run rather than a deep fly-out. Verlander is striking out 10.2 per nine innings, the best rate of his career and fourth among all starting pitchers. Over a quarter of the time, 26.3% to be exact, an opposing plate appearance ends in a strikeout. This is also a career high, and the seventh best among all starting pitchers. If this were the only information you were given about a pitcher, you should expect him to be in the Cy Young award discussion.
Is it the gopher ball? His home run rate of 0.65 per nine innings is below his career average. No, that isn't the problem.
Next question, is he walking too many batters? His rate is up to 3.25 per nine innings, about 50% higher than the last two years. But when looked at as a percentage of all plate appearances, it is 8.4% or more like a third higher. The rate is similar to 2010, and better than his off year of 2008. This indicates some difficulties with command. He may be throwing more pitches out of the strike zone and getting more swings and misses, but also allowing more walks.
So here is a number to surprise you. Verlander is allowing more walks, so he must be missing on the first pitch more often, right? Wrong, he is throwing a strike on 63% of first pitches, a career best. And 45% of his pitches are in the strike zone, up a bit from the last couple years. Even the walks may be a bit of a fluke.
Is this just a crazy stretch of bad luck? Batters are hitting .259 against Verlander, a career worst for him. His WHIP is 1.38, the worst since 2008. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is .347, which is crazy-high. Only Wade Davis and Joe Blanton have allowed hits at a higher rate when isolating plays where the batter made contact. Because of this, his FIP- and FIP look completely consistent with the last three years. In other words the advanced metrics are screaming "this dude is unlucky".
Are more balls falling in for hits because the batters are making better contact? His line drive rate of 23% is a bit higher than in recent years, but right in line with 2006 when he became JUSTIN VERLANDER. If you squint you can believe that he is allowing slightly more ground balls and slightly fewer fly balls, but that is probably noise. Almost 8% of batted balls are going for infield hits, well above average and another indicator of bad luck.
What about his velocity? Where are the 100 mph pitches? PITCHf/x breaks down velocity by four-seam and two-seam fastballs, and in both cases it is down one mph. Down is not good, but one mph is not enough for more me to draw a conclusion. Velocity rises during the season so this should improve a bit. But it does decrease with age. His curve ball is down one mph as well. But the slider and changeup have not decreased. His changeup was about eight mph off his four seam fastball, and now it is about seven mph slower. I suggest taking a little more off the changeup for better separation.
What about pitch selection? The fastball is at 40%, following a trend of declining usage most every year. His changeup is next, used almost one in five pitches. His previously devastating curveball is at a career low rate below 13%, while the slider is at a career high rate above 13%. His changeup rate per PITCHf/x is 34%, about double his career rate. And PITCHf/x ranks it as is best pitch, supplanting the curveball.
If you care to dig deeper, look into Verlander's curveball. The value per PITCHf/x, as compared to other pitchers' curveballs, has dropped dramatically. Baseball Info Solutions can't tell what pitch he throws 6.6% of the time. The rate for Yu Darvish is 0.3%. Something is going on here, perhaps some pitch types look too similar to others and it can't reliably classify them. Or to put it more scout-like, his breaking balls may be becoming to slurvy. Maybe this is where his command issue lies. Maybe he has taken some of the spin off. Maybe his release point is inconsistent. But this is the single most significant concern that jumps out of the data.
So what conclusions do I draw from this data mining exercise? Verlander's velocity is down a touch, but nothing unusual. He is allowing a lot more hits, mainly due to bad luck. He is allowing more walks, but his command is not off much. He loves his changeup to get swings and misses, and it could be even better. I predict that JUSTIN VERLANDER will return in the second half. The pundits will say it is due to some extra rest over the All Star break. I think it will be due to some hot weather freeing his arm to hit 99 mph, his curveball improving, and more balls finding their way into the fielders' gloves.