At one point in time, Justin Verlander was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. Over the four year period from 2009 to 2012, Verlander led the American League in strikeouts three times, ERA once, and won a Cy Young and MVP award. No pitcher was worth more than Verlander over that time. He accumulated 27.2 wins above replacement (WAR) according to FanGraphs, over two wins better than the next pitcher, Cliff Lee. One of the main reasons for Verlander’s dominance was his electric fastball, memorable for being able to reach triple digits late in games.
Over the next three years, Verlander began to decline, at least compared to the high standards he had established earlier. Hits were going up, strikeouts were declining. In 2014, he was in the bottom 10 in ERA among qualified AL starters. He then suffered a lat strain during spring training in 2015, and that put him on the disabled list for the first time in his career. Many fans wondered if he would ever be the same.
In 2016, however, Verlander had a Cy Young caliber season once again, only to have the award stolen from right under his nose by former teammate Rick Porcello. Verlander led the American League in strikeouts (254) and WHIP (1.00) and was second in ERA (3.04). Most importantly, he was able to regain velocity on his fastball, something that was missing in recent years.
During the 2016 season, Verlander got stronger as the season wore on. Every month he increased his velocity from the previous month. In the second half of the season he was able to regain his fastball velocity in the 95-95 mile-per-hour range, something he was not able to do since 2013. As his fastball got faster, his stats naturally got better. In the first half, Verlander managed a 4.07 ERA and a 25 percent strikeout rate. In the second half, his ERA was a mere 1.96 while his strikeout rate soared to 32 percent. Vintage Verlander was back.
There are two main reasons why a pitcher loses velocity. One is the natural age progression; as a pitcher gets older, he does not throw as hard. Research by FanGraphs (and others) indicates that pitchers start to noticeably lose velocity starting at age 29. Verlander’s age-29 season was in 2012. The other reason is injury. If a pitcher is playing hurt, he obviously is not going to show off his true talent. Both cases were true with Verlander, which brings up the question of how much of his velocity loss was injury-related and how much was just natural aging?
Given his 2016 performance, it can reasonably be concluded that most of Verlander’s velocity loss was due to his injury. Now that he is back at 100 percent health, he is back at dominating hitters with his heater. He is not reaching triple digits with the regularity as he once was in his prime, though this loss can be attributed to the natural aging progression. Without the injury, he is still aging normally as far as velocity is concerned.
It was not all roses for Verlander in 2016. Home runs were up across the board and Verlander was not immune to it. He gave up 30 home runs on the year, the most he has ever given up. This is why his FIP (3.48) was almost 50 points higher than his ERA (3.04). While Verlander has not exactly been a ground ball pitcher in the past, his fly ball rate last year was at 47.7 percent, the highest mark he has ever put up. Now that he has regained his velocity, he needs to work on keeping the ball in the yard for the 2017 season.