On May 25th, 2014, Justin Verlander stepped onto the mound in Comerica Park to face the Rangers in the top of the fifth inning. He had allowed three runs already, one of them unearned due to his own throwing error, but his offense had scored two to keep it close. He sat at 67 pitches as he stared in at Shin-Soo Choo for the first pitch of the inning, a curveball that grazed the inside corner but was taken for ball one.
Four pitches later, Choo had drawn a walk. The next batter reached on an error. With runners on the corners and no outs, and the middle of the lineup due up, Verlander reached back and pumped a 96 mile-per-hour fastball right down the middle, which Mitch Moreland fouled off. He followed it up with a fastball at 95 above the zone, which was again fouled away. After taking another 96 mile-per-hour fastball high for ball one, Moreland roped a curveball to deep center field for an RBI single.
The rest of the inning saw a lot of the same thing. A lot of 94-96 mph fastballs, and a lot of Rangers baserunners. When the dust settled, Verlander had thrown 29 pitches and the Tigers trailed 8-2. He returned to the mound in the sixth inning, but after a pair of doubles and a walk his day was done. His final line: 5 1/3 innings, 11 hits, three walks, one strikeout, and nine runs allowed (six earned). His fastball averaged 92.7 mph and topped out at 95.7 mph.
This outing wasn’t particularly memorable – Verlander has had plenty of off days in the past, just like every other pitcher. But given what we now know about how the 2014 season played out, it looks much more telling. Verlander, who had core muscle repair surgery weeks before the start of spring training, had one of the worst seasons in his career. While he was able to eat over 200 innings for the Tigers, his 4.54 ERA was far from what you hope to see from a pitcher with $140 million remaining on his contract.
Nationally, the common belief was that, at 31 years old, Verlander was simply seeing the harsh effects of aging. He was striking out hitters at his lowest rate since his rookie season, batters were swinging at and missing his pitches less often than in the past six years, and the smoking gun was as obvious as his pants are tight: velocity. I mean, just look at this graph.
Verlander’s average fastball had started above 96 miles per hour and steadily dropped each year until it was barely above 93. In that start on May 25, he got into trouble and, as he’s done dozens of times before, reached back for a little extra gas. The problem was that he couldn’t even find the juice to reach his average velocity from just a few years prior. Batters were more able to barrel up his pitches, and less likely to whiff. He only struck out one batter, but walked three.
Those of us that paid closer attention were quick to point out a caveat to the velocity decline: Verlander had been intentionally dialing it down for years, in an attempt to improve his command and pitch deeper into games. His average velocity wasn’t necessarily a good indication of what he could do, but rather what he had chosen to do. A better way to measure his true velocity would be to look at the times where he chose to grab that ball and chuck it as hard as he could.
What we see is that Verlander’s velocity definitely hasn’t been on a decline since 2009. While his average fastball speed dropped a bit each year, his maximum velocity actually peaked in 2011, and remained high in 2012. In fact, Verlander’s maximum velocity graph would almost mirror a graph made of his overall effectiveness.
However, we also see that his maximum velocity was down in 2013, and dropped again in 2014 along with his effectiveness. While we showed that he wasn’t on a six-year decline, we still couldn’t rule out that he was on a three-year decline. Many Tigers fans were quick to point out the offseason surgery and claim that this could be a one-year anomaly, but there was no way to disprove the theory that age was the primary cause, and that it would only get worse.
In his last start, on September 23, 2015, Justin Verlander threw a baseball 100 miles per hour again. It’s something he hadn’t done in over two years.
Velocity still isn’t everything, and 100 miles per hour is still significantly lower than the gas he was throwing prior to 2013. Normally, one 100 mile-per-hour pitch isn’t particularly noteworthy, nor even several pitches above 98. But for Verlander, that pitch has a much deeper meaning. It means that he still has that extra gas in the tank when he needs it, which seemed to be missing last year. It means that his lackluster performance in 2014 was probably a one-year anomaly, probably due to the offseason surgery. It means that age probably hasn’t crept up on our ace as fast as we feared. It means maybe he can add a couple more dominant seasons to his Hall of Fame résumé. It means maybe his contract won’t cripple the team after all.
We all watched as Verlander struggled after coming back from the triceps strain this season, and we watched as he slowly rounded into form and began posting impressive numbers. With each solid start we became more hopeful that 2014 was a mirage. We watched him take a no-hitter into the ninth inning, but still weren’t ready to truly believe. Baseball has tricked us often enough to make us distrustful. That pitch, really that entire seventh inning, showed that the real Justin Verlander is back. He has the look, he has the results, and now we know that he has the velocity too.