FanPost

Dissecting Justin Verlander

Brian Kersey

There really is no way to skirt around the truth here. Justin Verlander is terrible right now. He’s a fifth starter right now. He’s nothing like the Justin Verlander we were spoiled by between 2009 to 2012. Tigers fans are in a panic, and understandably so. Justin Verlander is frustrated, and rightfully so. He’s one bad start away from seeing his ERA shoot beyond five per nine innings. No one, even in their most self-loathing pessimistic and masochistic dreams could have imagined this would happen to Verlander when he had signed his huge contract extension back in 2012. No. One.

But the question still largely remains a mystery: what exactly is the cause of Justin Verlander falling off the face of the earth this year? There must be something drastically different in the way Verlander is pitching in order to merit his drastically worse results. Something. Something has to be the cause of the ineffectiveness, right? RIGHT?!

Digging deep into the Numbers

Opponents' Plate Discipline vs Justin Verlander

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2014 28.7% 67.8% 47% 68.6% 85.7% 80.2% 46.8% 59% 9%
Career 29.7% 67.5% 47.8% 66.9% 84.8% 79% 47.9% 60.8% 9.8%

If there were some major changes in whatever way the Tigers ace was pitching, we should expect to see it in opposing hitters’ plate discipline. Yet, when we look through the numbers, nothing truly noteworthy stands out. Sure, most of Verlander’s peripherals here are in the red, but they are almost all within 2% of his career averages; that variance is hardly alarming and is almost what we would expect to see year in and year out. So we don’t really have anything to point to and say "AHA," here. Perhaps it’s the way that batters are connecting the bat to the ball?

Opponent's Batted Ball vs Justin Verlander

LD% GB% FB%
2014 16.4% 42.3% 41.3%
Career 20.1% 40.2% 39.7%

Again, there’s nothing significantly standing out in what opponents are doing against Verlander, in terms of batted ball. If anything, that career low line drive percentage, followed by an increase in fly balls and ground balls should be HELPING Verlander against opponents.

Opponents’ career slash lines on line drives is .728/.726/.983. This year, they are hitting .705/.694/1.066. Slightly worse on career averages, but it’s a wash. Opposing batters are expected to get on base with line drives, and there’s not much to analyze here. When it comes to fly balls, the batted ball that hitters statistically have the lowest averages against, opponents are slashing .159/ .156/ .440 against Justin Verlander. In 2014, they are slashing .139/.137/.400. So opponents are actually hitting worse when they hit a fly ball this year than on average.

Now is where we get to the fun part. The major league average on ground balls this year is .244/.244/.246. Opponents on JV’s career are slashing .253/ .253/ .276 when they hit ground balls. What about this year? Opponents are slashing .362/.362/.406 when they hit a ground ball. For the record, opponents are only slashing .212/.212/.273 on ground balls this year against ground baller extraordinaire, Rick Porcello.

That’s just not normal. A ground ball is supposed to more often than not lead to an out. But for Verlander, hitters are getting on base at a ridiculously high clip when the ball hits the ground. That is well beyond league average and Verlander averages. Some regression is due either this year or next.

So far, using basic statistics, there is nothing Justin Verlander is doing that really stands out as a ‘problem.’ If anything, he is suffering from extreme bad luck. So we will have to dig deeper if we want to figure out what is going down. Let’s look at each individual pitch (four-seamed fastball, changeup, curveball, slider) to see what is going on with Verlander.

Four-Seamed Fastball

Rumors of the demise of Verlander’s fastball velocity have been largely exaggerated. Sure, it’s declining, but we’re not talking a C.C. Sabathia-esque collapse of 1 mph each year. The previous season, Verlander’s fastball averaged only seven tenths of a mile-per-hour less than 2012 (From 95.32 mph to 94.62 mph). It’s slight, gradual decline. It’s not as if he’s losing it all at once. I just wanted to point that out. Another interesting point on the velocity front: so far in June, Verlander’s fastball is averaging 94.84 mph. It took until August for Verlander to post an average fastball velocity last year. It will be a while before we can justifiably cry doom on the fastball velocity at the rate we are doing now.

-On his career, opponents have a wOBA of .335 against Justin Verlander. This year, they have a wOBA of .380 against the four-seamed fastball. By far, this is the hardest opponents have hit the fastball ever in Justin’s career.

-Career wise, opposing hitters have hit 21.4% line drives, 34.2% ground balls, and 44.4% fly balls. This year, they are hitting 22.9% line drives, 35.1% ground balls, and 42% fly balls.

-Opponents have a career 83.5% contact percentage on Verlander’s fastball. This year, they have an 87.6% contact rate.

-The fastball has a zone percentage of 53.4% in 2014, down from 55.9% on his career. That’s still over 50%, and a 2.5% difference isn't that much to cry about how Verlander’s command has been lost.

-Opposing hitters have a swinging strike percentage of only 6.5%, down 2% from his career average. Something about it is more hittable this year and last than it ever was.

Changeup

-Opponents are hitting 14.3% line drives on the changeup, which is actually down from his career average of 18.9%. They are hitting 46.6% ground balls, up from the 43.8% mark on Verlander’s career. Fly balls are also up 2% from his career at 39.3%.

-The changeup is being thrown inside the strike zone 53.5%. This is the highest zone percentage for JV’s changeup since this data began being tracked in 2007.

By all accounts, it would seem at first glance that the changeup should be a weapon for Justin Verlander, and yet…

-Contact percentage on the changeup is way up, from 71.2% on his career to 80%. Swings and misses on the changeup are down from 13.8% on his career to a pitiful 8.9%.

-Opposing hitters have a BABIP of .341 when putting Verlander’s changeup in play. On Verlander’s career, opposing hitters have managed a BABIP of only .272.

-Opposing hitters have a wOBA of .381 against Verlander’s changeup. That’s 100 points up from their career mark of a .281 wOBA against Verlander’s changeup.

Opponents are absolutely destroying Verlander’s changeup. I’m not ready to say it’s become a bad pitch, though. Looking at the numbers, it would seem, in conjunction with opposing hitters’ overall batted ball percentages, that they have become very lucky when connecting the bat with the ball. That doesn't explain why they are making significantly more contact on the pitch. I’m sure, however, that a BABIP of 70 points higher than career norms is a surefire lock for a ride on the regression train, should Verlander work out some kinks.

Slider

An interesting tidbit about the slider - Verlander has slowly ramped up its usage in the last couple of years. This year, Verlander is throwing the highest percentage of sliders since he introduced the pitch to his arsenal back in 2009.

-Continuing the trend we've seen with every other pitch thrown by Verlander, opponents are hitting line drives at a lesser clip, 17.6%, down from 23%. He’s inducing 3% more ground balls at a 47% clip. He’s also inducing slightly more ground balls, 35.3% up from a career mark of 32.6%

-Continuing the other trend we've seen so far with pitches thrown by Verlander, opponents have a higher BABIP than career averages on the slider, though only 20 points higher than normal. They also have a higher wOBA (.274) against the slider than average (.241). Contact is also up at 72%, a 7% increase from a career average contact percentage of 65%.

-Verlander is not commanding the slider very well. The 39.5% zone percentage on the slider is 5% less than his career averages. Opposing hitters have responded in kind by swinging at it less at a 44% clip, which is down from a swing percentage of 49.3% against the slider.

So same old, same old. Verlander’s batted ball peripherals trend in the right direction, but opponents are making more contact with the Slider and are getting on base more against it.

Curveball

-Opponents are hitting 22.4% line drives off the curveball. That's actually up from a 20.9% career average. That, however, is only a 1.5% increase, so it looks worse than it probably is. The curve is inducing more ground balls, 55.1% up from 52.8%, and is drawing less fly balls (22.4% mark this year from a 26.3% career mark).

-Opponents have a wOBA of .268 against the curveball. That is way up from a career mark of .186. They have a BABIP of .340, which is way up from a career BABIP of .281.

-Verlander is having his worst command over the curveball in his career. His 42.5% zone percentage is 5.6% lower than his career average. Opponent's are swinging 45.1% of the time, up 8% from a career mark of 37.3%. Here's the fun part, though: opponent's are actually making worse contact than average. Opponent's 72.7% is worse than their 75% career average. That 73% mark is also noticeably better than the previous year.

The curveball has to be the epitome of what is truly frustrating so far in evaluating what is wrong with him. The batted ball percentages aren't noticeably different and are trending in the right way. While his command of the pitch is the worst it has ever been, for once they are not making noticeably better contact on the pitch. Yet, they are still getting very lucky when they put the ball in play.

Ball Movement and Some Mechanics

So far, the data we have looked at is giving us conflicting reports. On one hand, batted ball data and overall opposing hitters' plate discipline suggest that Justin Verlander should be pitching well, and may be getting very unlucky when opponents put the ball in play. On the other hand, looking at pitch-by-pitch data seems to tell us that Verlander's pitches are very hitable and are getting annihilated by batters. Certainly, some bad luck is involved. But we can't dismiss the fact that Verlander is at fault for getting hit very hard.

Is the 'stuff' not there?

Kbbqulq_medium

via i.imgur.com and Brooks Baseball

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via i.imgur.com and Brooks Baseball

Now, perhaps I'm mistaken because I'm not a pitcher, but there doesn't appear to be any noticeable change in the 'stuff.' While the curveball's vertical movement is the most notable change, we've already established that the curve is not Verlander's problem pitch this year. Perhaps every fraction of an inch does matter. To me, common sense tells me that the slight differences in the movement on Verlander's pitches, most of which are within range of the same movement Verlander has had on his pitches when he was dominating, is very negligible. Verlander's stuff is still there. So I don't think we can pin the blame on Verlander stinking up to high heaven on a decline of the stuff, or at the very least a down year of thereof.

We COULD look again at where Verlander's pitches are ending up to get an idea of possible mechanical flaws...

T34brew_medium

via i.imgur.com and Brooks Baseball

W4dvum9_medium

via i.imgur.com and Brooks Baseball

But again, we don't see any extreme variance, save for the changeup (which has similar movement that it had in 2011) that would suggest Verlander is doing something mechanically wrong that is causing his pitches to be more hittable. Most of his pitches are located within a tic of their locations from years where he was "The Ace."

I can't post tape, nor am I an expert in pitching mechanics. An important part of mechanics, though, as I understand at least, is the release point. This data is tracked and can be used without the use of .gif files or youtube videos.

Bwidjwb_medium

via i.imgur.com and Brooks Baseball

Again, nothing extreme. Verlander seems to have adjusted his release points so that they are similar to what he did in 2012, which was a year he SHOULD HAVE won the Cy Young award. So that doesn't seem to suggest he's doing something mechanically wrong with the release point.

If you want further evidence of this:

Release_php_medium

via www.brooksbaseball.net

Release_php_medium

via www.brooksbaseball.net

Release_php_medium

via www.brooksbaseball.net

The first two images are from Verlander's domination of Oakland in the previous two game fives in the ALDS. The final image is from Verlander's outing against the Baltimore Orioles this year. Notice how little variance there are between his release points. In that regards, I don't think there is a mechanical flaw there.

Conclusion

Quite honestly, I have no clue what is wrong with Justin Verlander. True, he's getting destroyed. However, it doesn't appear that there is anything glaringly different that Justin Verlander is doing in 2014 that he did when he was an effective ace. The stuff is there. There's a lot of bad luck involved, most definitely. If there were mechanical problems, I strongly believe they would go beyond the scope of research done here.

Really, if you can solve this enigma, I would recommend driving down to Detroit, hand your resume for pitching coach to Dave Dombrowski, and get to immediate work on Verlander.

After looking through all the data, I am very much out of theories on why Verlander is pitching poorly and how to fix him.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of the <em>Bless You Boys</em> writing staff.

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