It has officially become cliché to start an article with "Justin Verlander was really bad in 2014." There are two problems with this, though: (1) it's true, and (2) he has not gotten a chance to change our minds in 2015 yet. Until the season starts, Justin Verlander is a giant unknown. Will he rebound to pre-2014 levels? Will he regain his fastball velocity? Is he the newest Worst Contract in Baseball? There might as well be a giant question mark sitting next to Kate Upton at [insert NBA game here] next week.
I want to explore what exactly went wrong with Verlander in 2014, beyond the whole "he had surgery" business. However, with so many questions surrounding Verlander, it almost seems appropriate to backtrack and simply ask "who is Justin Verlander?" Some still see him as the flamethrowing right-hander the Tigers plucked out of Old Dominion in the 2004 draft, the guy that is hell-bent on striking out the entire world. Others recognize the changes he has made to his arsenal over the years to become a more nuanced pitcher. Maybe he's both. Even we don't know who he is anymore.
I want to clear the air. The following is a scouting report of Justin Verlander, similar to the ones I wrote for Shane Greene (here) and Alfredo Simon (here) when they were acquired earlier this offseason. Think of it on those terms.
Justin Verlander utilizes a standard four-pitch mix: a fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup. He broke into the big leagues in 2005 throwing nothing but gas, and quickly became known for hitting triple digits in the seventh and eighth inning of his starts. In short, he was a freak. He averaged just under 95 miles per hour on his fastball in 2007, the first season where PitchFX data were recorded. His average velocity has fluctuated somewhat since then, but sits at 95.18 miles per hour for his career.
He has given opposing batters a steady diet of fastballs throughout his career, throwing it nearly 60 percent of the time. This usage rate ups to 72.2 percent on the first pitch of an at-bat for his career. While this has helped him throw strike one 61 percent of the time, it has also led to a .330 batting average and .537 slugging average for opposing batters who put that first pitch into play. Putting it in play isn't always a given, though; batters who swing at Verlander's first pitch are only hitting .259/.287/.399 overall.
Verlander's slider is a more recent development. PitchFX did not even record a slider for Verlander in 2007, and logged only four for the entire 2008 season. He threw it less than three percent of the time in 2009, a season in which he threw his fastball two-thirds of the time. Verlander finally gained enough confidence in the slider to throw it against right-handed batters 16 percent of the time in 2010. He picked up his usage in 2012, throwing it 27 percent of the time to righties. It wasn't until 2014 that Verlander started mixing it in against left-handed batters. He threw it a modest seven percent of the time against lefties last season, resulting in the highest overall usage rate of his career.
Throughout its evolution, Verlander's slider has remained a consistently above average pitch. Sitting at 86-87 miles per hour, it has sharp, late break that has fooled many a hitter. For his career, Verlander's slider has induced a 17.4 percent swing-and-miss rate, the highest of any of his pitches.
Verlander's curveball is a textbook 12-6 pitch, or a "yellowhammer," as Jim Price would call it. It sits in the high 70s and low 80s, and is frequently used in two strike counts or when Verlander is ahead. The curve has only induced a 9.8 percent whiff rate in Verlander's career, but his arm action and the pitch's sharp break often results in hitters watching it drop into the zone for strike three. Opposing batters have swung at Verlander's other three pitches roughly 50 percent of the time in his career, but the curveball sits at a 37 percent swing rate.
Verlander's changeup does not get a lot of attention, but it too is an excellent pitch. PitchFX has clocked the changeup at roughly 85 miles per hour for his career, though there have been instances of the system struggling to differ between the fastball and changeup. If anything, this speaks to the effectiveness of the pitch; Verlander throws it from the same arm slot as his fastball, and the fading action has baffled lefties for years. He has thrown it over 20 percent of the time to lefties in his career resulting in a 16.4 percent whiff rate. Opposing batters are hitting just .221 against the changeup in over 4200 plate appearances in Verlander's career.
This arsenal has paved the way for Verlander to put up some eye-popping numbers in his 10 year career. He has pitched 1,978 innings, the 11th highest total in Tigers history. This includes 200 innings or more in each of the past eight seasons, tying with James Shields for the longest streak among active pitchers. Verlander has struck out 1,830 batters in his career, the third-highest total in Tigers history. His 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings are second only to Max Scherzer in team history. Verlander has walked under three batters per nine innings for his career, good for a career 3.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has allowed a 3.53 ERA and 3.43 FIP in his career, and a 3.23 ERA and 3.17 FIP in the past five seasons.
No matter the side of the plate, hitters have not fared well against Verlander. Righties have hit .248/.304/.371 against him in his career, with 3.5 strikeouts for every walk. Lefties have actually been slightly worse at .232/.299/.362, though they have walked and homered at a higher rate than right-handers. Verlander has a career 79-37 record and 3.20 ERA at Comerica Park, a fair shake better than his 73-52 record and 3.84 ERA on the road. His fielding independent stats have been more even, with just a 0.07 difference between his career home and road FIP.
One thing that has separated Verlander from most pitchers is his incredible stamina. Not only has he been able to dial his fastball up to triple digits in late inning at-bats, but he has also shown virtually no difference in performance as his pitch count climbs. Opposing batters are hitting .239/.306/.380 in the first 25 pitches of an appearance in his career, and .243/.308/.349 when Verlander's pitch count gets above 100. Ironically, his lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio and highest walk rate come in that 0-25 pitch range; at every other 25 pitch interval, Verlander strikes out over three batters for every walk.
Verlander turns 32 years old on February 20th. With five seasons and $140 million in guaranteed money left on his current contract, both he and the Tigers are hoping that he can return to being the pitcher detailed above in 2015. We will look into what went wrong for Verlander in 2014 later on, with an in-depth look at the various themes that popped up among local and national baseball analysts throughout the season.