In case you hadn’t heard by now, Justin Verlander is on another planet. He has pitched 11 quality starts in a row and has not had a game with less than five strikeouts since May 3. His 2.09 ERA since the start of July is a huge reason the Tigers have been steadily climbing back into the playoff race over the last month.
Verlander seems to have doubled down on what has gotten him back to the top of his game. Since the beginning of August, hitters are swinging and missing less often but putting the ball in the air even more than ever. Let’s dive into the stats to see what he’s been doing.
First of all, it’s important to note that Verlander is striking out batters at an all-time high level recently. His K/9 since the start of August is a robust 10.20, and his strikeout rate is an even spicier 29.7 percent. Couple that with a walk rate of just 3.9 percent and you have a guy who is controlling the outcomes at the plate in a way that pretty much only Clayton Kershaw can claim to do. I doubt Verlander can continue to be a Kershaw-like strikeouts-to-walks kind of guy, because his swinging strike rate is lower -- 11.7 percent on the season and 11.4 percent over his last seven starts. Those numbers are better than Verlander’s swinging strike rates in 2009 and 2011 though, showing that Detroit’s ace has the ability to keep whiffing batters.
Given Verlander’s success in contact-independent situations, it may come as no surprise that the righty has a 2.45 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP over the last seven starts. However, what may come as a surprise is that his fielding-independent measures forecast some regression. This is supported by a FIP of 3.78, and an xFIP of 3.84. How could Verlander be so good and yet have such mediocre peripherals?
The answer lies in home runs. When you give up nine home runs in seven starts, FIP is going to start giving you a condescending look over the top of its glasses. A trend like that in a sample so small is one that I would normally dismiss as a statistical anomaly -- an elevated home runs to fly balls ratio. Except it’s kind of not an anomaly. His HR/FB rate is 12.7 percent since the start of August. League average has jumped from 11.4 percent to 13.0 percent this year (juiced baseballs!), so hitters are not really jacking balls out any more than average against JV.
And that finally brings us to the adjustment that Verlander has made to his pitching style. He’s becoming an extreme fly-ball pitcher in the same sort of mold as Max Scherzer, and in doing so he’s willing to give up the more-than-occasional tater. Check out Verlander’s fly ball ratios over the years:
|Year||Fly ball rate|
|Last 7 starts||59.2|
Yeah, that’s not a joke. Batters are just not able to hit ground balls off of him anymore. It’s a bold strategy, given the relative competence of Detroit’s infield crew at playing defense compared to the incompetence displayed by the outfield. However, even the worst outfield (and Justin Upton, Cameron Maybin, and J.D. Martinez is not far from that) converts far more fly balls into outs than even the best infield can do on ground balls. Unsurprisingly, hitters are batting just .189 with a .214 BABIP against him during that stretch. This minimizes traffic on the basepaths and prevents home runs from being costly.
Even more interesting is that Verlander seems to use this strategy only with the bases empty. Once runners were on, Verlander got more ground balls than fly balls in the month of August, allowing him to cede only one home run with a man on base. In fact, only five of his 26 home runs allowed this here have plated another runners.
The key to this new Verlander is keeping his four-seamer up in the zone. In 2016, he’s done a very good job of this:
The elevated fastball appears to be a Rich Dubee special, and it helps explain why Verlander is getting so many swings and misses or fly balls. The fastball needs to stay up though, and it’s when he misses that batters have gotten a hold of it:
Alex Avila has gotten a hold of two fastballs that didn’t quite get high enough in Verlander’s last two starts. If Verlander can eliminate the mistake fastball grooved over the plate? That is a scary thought.
We appear to have again reached a point in Verlander’s career where he once again is willing to dial back earlier in games and refine his approach when runners are on base. That is a sign of the vintage Justin Verlander, the one who has defeated fielding-indpendent pitching measures.