Struggles in April are no stranger to Justin Verlander. Just last season, we saw the Tigers’ ace rack up an ugly 5.46 ERA in April. Of course, he adjusted from that point on and erased all memory of it with five consecutive months of excellence. Verlander’s last two starts have been very April-like. In particular, he’s struggling to handle left-handers after dominating them in 2016. His poor command won’t go on like this, but his struggles against lefties thus far may be a sign that he needs to rediscover an old friend, his changeup.
Verlander has basically abandoned his changeup during his second run at the top of the American League. During his first great run, from 2010-2013, Verlander’s changeup was a substantial part of his arsenal. He threw it roughly 16 percent of the time through those years. It was the weapon that helped keep left-handers off his fastball back in the days when his slider was far less refined. But since his return to dominance in 2015, that changeup usage has rapidly diminished into the single digits. So far in 2017, he’s only thrown the changeup 15 times. That’s just 4.4 percent of his usage. Take a look at how that compares to his usage against left-handers since the beginning of the 2010 season.
Justin Verlander v. LH hitters
Since he returned from the disabled list in 2015—and particularly since he rebuilt his slider into the harder more cutter-like version we saw last season—the slider has become his secondary pitch of a choice to lefties. Starting in July last year, the changeup has fallen out of favor. Even when Verlander goes offspeed to a lefty, it’s much more likely a curveball nowadays than a changeup. It’s early, and three starts doesn’t mean this is a huge trend in usage, but he’s only thrown his changeup 4.4 percent of the time so far. He may simply not have had good feel for it in the moment. But the trend over two seasons now speaks to the changeups’ declining favor.
Of course, Verlander’s hard slider was one of the best in baseball last year. It’s not surprising that he’s leaned on it heavily. But so far this season, he’s throwing it even harder, and it’s possible that the diminishing separation from his fastball velocity is allowing hitters to sit fastball more easily. So far he’s averaging 94.53 mph with his fourseam according to Statcast. The slider, and really, it’s a cutter for our purposes at this point regardless of Verlander’s protestations, is averaging 90.10 mph. He’s basically throwing two types of fastball, and the velocity bands aren’t distinct enough to get whiffs. Instead, Verlander is relying solely on the movement of his slider and fastball to miss bats.
The slider also requires a pretty narrow window to succeed.
It takes precision to pitch inside, especially to good opposite handed hitters. But watching left-handed hitters fouling off more fourseam fastballs and sliders here in the early going has been frustrating. What’s more, that approach demands pitching almost exclusively inside with the slider. That’s a tough needle to thread consistently. There isn’t anything a hitter has to be ready to reach for low and away. The changeup would allow Verlander much more sway to use both sides of the plate, and would likely make all his stuff play better.
Not only is the fastball-slider combination more easily distinguished out of a pitcher’s hand, there isn’t enough velocity separation to create swings and misses off one another. The bat is sped up with both. If a hitter is expecting one of the two, they can often still adjust in time to foul off the other. The gap is only four miles per hour.
The reason a good changeup is so effective against opposite handed hitters, is that it has similar tailing action to the fourseam fastball, but with a wide enough velocity gap that a hitter can’t adjust mid-swing when fooled. The hand position at release also mimics the fourseam release in a way the slider release does not. With good armspeed on the changeup, the deception is much greater than between the fastball and slider.
Justin Verlander, changeup movement. pic.twitter.com/2Iu3BepdtU— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 12, 2016
A hitter trying to stay ready to climb the ladder for a fourseam fastball with a lot of life, coming in at 95 mph, has an extremely tough task in adjusting to a quality changeup. If you’re ready to hit the fastball, you can’t slow yourself down enough to stay back on an 87-88 mph fader. Likewise, if you have the changeup in the back of your mind, Verlander’s fastball is going to be in the catcher’s mitt before you come to a decision.
This isn’t to say that Verlander should abandon the slider to lefties. We saw how effective it could be when he got it inside on hitters’ hands, or buried it on their back foot as they swung over it. He’s using it the same way this season, just a little harder version, and so far, with much worse command. But particularly with the even harder version Verlander has flashed so far, the deception caused by a more liberal diet of changeups would wreak havoc on their timing in ways the slider cannot. Considering that left-handed hitters have tagged Verlander for an ugly .402 wOBA so far, it may be time for a change.
It bears remembering that he dominated left-handed hitters with the fastball-slider combination in 2016. Overall, lefties hit for just a .261 wOBA against Verlander last year, 22 points worse than right-handers. Even with the harder version we’re seeing this year, he may still manage to do the same once he gets his command sorted out. But the changeup has always been an important weapon for him against lefties, and would likely be so again if he started mixing it in a little more.
Perhaps he just hasn’t regularly had the feel for the pitch over the past year. Maybe the work on the slider has simply pushed the changeup to the side. We’re talking about one of the best pitchers in the game, so perhaps he has a better plan, and just isn’t executing it yet. Either way, the potential return of Justin Verlander’s changeup will be something to watch for as the season progresses.