For almost two months now, followers of the Detroit Tigers have been treated to a sight most worried they'd never see again. Justin Verlander has found his way back into dominant form, and he's done it his way, with customary dismissal of just about all outside opinion on the matter. Pundits, fans and even his coaches, going back as far as June of 2013, have harped upon the need for Verlander to remake himself as a pitcher to cope with the ravages of age and workload. Instead, Verlander doubled down on his strength and conditioning, finally got healthy, and is showcasing an approach built as always on the principles of pure hardball.
Verlander's fastball usage this year stands at 58.7% of all pitches thrown. That's the highest percentage of fastballs he's used since 2009, when he fired 67.9% fastballs. This despite a drop of nearly 3 mph in average fastball velocity over that timespan. Seasoned observers have argued for a greater diversity of usage from Verlander's full arsenal, or recommended the development of either a cut-fastball or emphasis on his two-seam fastball to put another tool in his kit. Instead, the most intimidating power-pitcher of his generation has doubled down on his trusty four-seamer, and thus far, he's proven himself correct. The question is, what changed to make this work for him again?
First off, the concerns about his velocity loss were overblown to begin with. Anyone who watched Verlander closely in his prime years of 2009-2012 knows that his dominance wasn't built off of throwing 100 mph. In fact, he rarely threw even close to that hard until late in games, or under the worst of circumstances. In innings one through seven he was plenty dominant despite rarely exceeded 97 mph. The sheer freakishness and spectacle of Verlander's ability to gear up to triple-digits, after having already thrown 100 pitches in a game, cast a shadow much greater than it's importance. Certainly Verlander's recovery from an injury plagued pair of years has added just a bit more zip on the fastball, but for all intents and purposes he's throwing no harder than he did during his difficult 2014 campaign.
Secondly, movement and location are the most important factors. Here, a small adjustment Verlander and Tigers' pitching coach Jeff Jones made to his delivery at the end of June appears to have paid big dividends in increasing both the rise and tailing action on his fastball. Just as importantly, the consistency of his location with all his pitches has appeared much improved as he's finally gotten healthy enough to reap the dividends of his off-season strength and conditioning program. This has led to a distinct uptick in swinging strikes and pop-ups against his fastball since the beginning of July, particularly as Verlander has maximized that improved movement by pitching hitters aggressively inside and at the top of the strike zone. In his last start against the Houston Astros, hitters were over-matched by the fastball all night.
In August so far, Verlander has a 12.56 whiff percentage against his fastball, one of the higher monthly rates of his career. That's more than double the whiff percentage his fastball produced in June and built on the improved rate he showed in July. The results have been obvious on the field in the form of hitters tied up inside and lofting lazy fly-balls and pop-ups, or simply sacrificing a bat to a hard-tailing fastball in on their hands. His strikeout rate climbed to 23.2% in August, right in line with his prime years, while his pop-up rate is up to 12.9%. When 36% of batters are going down without putting the ball solidly in play, you're definitely doing things right. His recent strikeout rate is back close to the numbers he posted in his prime years, and he's done a superb job limiting the walks since his first few ugly starts in June.
Verlander's approach in pitching hitters up and in is a sound one, provided he continues to locate the ball well. Typically, a pitch appears faster the closer to the batter's eye it is thrown. Pitches low and away appear slower than those in on the hands or above the strike zone. By pitching more aggressively up and in, Verlander is making an already good fastball look even tougher to hit, forcing hitters to pull their hands in to make contact, and taking away the extension that is the source of a powerful swing. He also backing them off the plate, opening up the outside edge a little more. In addition, putting the high fastball in hitters' minds can make secondary offerings look even more tempting, as the curveball and changeup are both typically thrown toward the top of the zone, and finish at the bottom or below the strikezone. In short, once you've seen a lot of fastballs buzz your tower between the belt and the letters, you're more apt to bite on pitches that start out on the same trajectory as the fastball.
Another clear result of Verlander's rebuilt fastball has been in combating the odd reverse splits that have hounded him since 2013.
Verlander has handled left-handed hitters well for years. It's right-handed hitters that have been the source of his trouble the past few seasons. Since pitchers are typically much better against same-handed hitters, this has been a really noteworthy trend. Orthodoxy says that for a right-handed pitcher, pitches that move mostly vertically, such as curves and change-ups, are most effective against left-handed hitters, while pitches that have more horizontal movement, such as sliders, cutters and two-seam fastballs, typically work best against right-handed hitters. Thus some of the calls for Verlander to develop his two-seam fastball, or a cutter, to combat right-handed hitters. However, it appears that with the improved action and command of his fastball, and his willingness to attack hitters inside, Verlander is finally closing the gap in his splits.
So, things are looking much brighter for Justin Verlander these days. The former ace still has to demonstrate that he can carry this success forward and avoid injury in the process. But he's made tangible improvements this season that continue to trend in a positive direction. If there's one caveat to Verlander's success so far, it's that his approach is producing the highest fly-ball rates of his career by far. 54.4% of balls in play against him in August have been fly-balls. That is an enormous number. Meanwhile, only 3.2% of those fly-balls went for home-runs. It's impossible to expect that rate to stay that low. In order to avoid serious damage, Verlander is going to have to keep the high fastball over the edges of the plate, and to be ready to adjust as hitters start looking for the ball there more often. If he can, Verlander may be on his way to a brilliant second act.