Over the course of his first seven starts, it seems like Justin Verlander has had trouble "putting hitters away" with two strikes. The eye test tells us that opposing hitters are fouling off more pitches and working themselves into better counts, driving Verlander's up pitch counts. With his fastball velocity sitting lower than the mid-90s heat we're used to seeing, it's possible that Verlander is pitching to contact more often in 2013.
To examine this phenomenon, I wanted to take a look at how often Verlander has been getting ahead of hitters this season compared to years past. In 2013, Verlander has pitched his way to an 0-2 count against 64 of 185 hitters, a whopping 34.6 percent of the total number of batters he has faced. In 2012, he put 21.8% of hitters into an 0-2 count, and he has put 21.4% of the batters he has faced in his career into an 0-2 hole.
|0-2 count BF||64||208||221||1410|
|0-2 count %||34.6||21.8||22.8||21.4|
Verlander is getting ahead of batters much more often than he has in years past, but it isn't because of pitch selection. His pitch distribution has hardly budged from 2012; he still throws his fastball 70-75% of the time on the first pitch of an at-bat and isn't using any of his off-speed pitches more or less often than in past seasons. Looking into strictly his April splits, he actually threw his fastball more often on the first pitch of an at-bat in 2012 than he has in 2011 or 2013. In 2011, he relied on the curveball more often to start an at-bat, while in 2013 the pitch du jour has been his slider.
Here are his first pitch tendencies for April only:
While the tendencies vary somewhat against right and left-handed hitters, there still isn't enough evidence here to explain why Verlander is getting ahead of hitters more often in 2013.
In Sunday's start against the Astros, he put 12 of the 24 batters he faced into an 0-2 hole. Eight of those 12 hitters eventually struck out. However, the 12 hitters Verlander had down 0-2 fouled off a total of 11 pitches after reaching an 0-2 count. This is what has been grinding at fans' gears all season long. Is Verlander not being as aggressive as in years past? Is he trying to be "too cute" looking for strikeouts?
Let's go back to the first data set above. Of those 64 opposing hitters Verlander has put into an 0-2 count in 2013, 33 of them have struck out. Believe it or not, this is a higher percentage than in years past.
|BF in 0-2 count||64||208||221||1410|
Even if we take away the outlier from Sunday -- in which Verlander struck out 66.7% of hitters he had down 0-2 -- he is still punching out 48.1% of hitters he puts into an 0-2 hole in 2013.
Still, this doesn't answer the entire question. Are hitters fouling off more pitches and driving Verlander's pitch count skyward? Overall, yes. Opposing hitters are fouling off 25.2% of the fastballs that he has thrown in 2013, up from 23.5% last season and 23.6% for his career. Foul ball percentages are higher for his secondary pitches as well.
However, when we look specifically at 0-2 counts, the discrepancy in foul ball percentages is nullified. Hitters are fouling off his slider and changeup more often in 2013 than in 2012, but they aren't spoiling the fastball or curveball as often as they did last season. Granted, we're dealing with a small sample given Verlander has only reached 64 0-2 counts in 2013, so these figures may look drastically different in another month. Overall, I don't think there are enough data to support the idea that opposing hitters are fouling off more pitches in two-strike counts.
While Verlander has not been quite as efficient as he was to start the season in 2012 -- he is averaging an extra pitch per inning through his first seven starts in 2013 -- it doesn't seem to be anything to be particularly concerned about. And hey, pitch counts are bunk anyway, right? He is still striking out over a batter per inning, and his 1.55 ERA is the lowest of his career (by over a run) after seven starts. If it takes less velocity and another pitch per inning to keep getting results like this, I won't complain.