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Justin Verlander’s adjustments may be messing with a good thing

In his constant search for improvement, the Tigers’ ace may be looking too far back.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s difficult to question Justin Verlander. A consummate student of the game, Verlander has adapted time and time again, not only outlasting his peers, but a great many starting pitchers who came along when he was already in his prime. Six seasons after his 2011 MVP and Cy Young Award winning season, Verlander has regained all but a fraction of his peak velocity. His durability and endurance still stand apart from nearly any other starting pitcher in the game.

In that constant quest for improvement, sometimes even the greats can lose their way or try to fix something that isn’t broken. Such may be the case with Verlander so far in 2017.

Obviously, the major issue for Verlander has been his control this season. His walk rate sits at its highest point in his career. There is plenty of time to turn that around, but his inability to consistently locate his pitches for a full outing is the key culprit in his mediocre start to the season. Every outing still seems to feature an inning or two where his command fails him. With 10 starts now under his belt, this goes deeper than his typical early season issues.

Back in late April, Verlander referred to an ongoing adjustment he was making to his release point.

“I made an adjustment two starts ago,” he said. “Last time out it was inconsistent but I knew it was right, so I stuck with it this time. I just expected it to get better and better. I knew it was right.”

He didn’t want to get into the specifics of the adjustment, but said he went back and studied video from his pre-injury seasons.

That adjustment corresponded with a bit of a bump in Verlander’s max velocity readings. Indeed, we saw him hitting 98-99 miles per hour through his next five starts, even in the middle innings of his outings when he wanted a little extra. That is maximum velocity that he hasn’t quite had since 2010-2013.

A quick glance at Verlander’s indicates that the most obvious sign of those adjustments is a substantially lower release point.

Verlander Vertical Release Pt.

Verlander’s release point with his fastball is a bit lower, but it’s especially obvious in his secondary pitches. In fact, he’s releasing the ball lower overall than he did even in early 2011, just as he began the finest two year stretch of his career. However, the relationship between his current release point and where he was early in 2011 makes this seem a like a conscious choice.

To visualize the effect of this on his fastball, imagine you’re on the mound, and the ball is a clock face. If you’re pulling straight down at six o’ clock, you’re going to get maximum backspin, and correspondingly, the most rising action possible on the fastball. If you lower your arm angle, that six ‘o clock becomes something closer to seven or seven-thirty, and as a result, you’re generating a more sidespin and thus, more armside run on the fastball.

In the simplest terms, that’s what is happening with Verlander’s fastball. He’s pulling a bit more across the ball rather than down than he did last season. And for the fastball, leaving aside the control issues, that may be ideal.

As you’d expect with a change like that, Verlander is getting a little more tailing action in toward a right-handed hitter. He also appears to have lost none of the rising action on the pitch in the process. But where things have sometimes gone haywire is with his breaking balls. He’s simply not getting on top of the ball to generate the topspin on his curve as consistently as we’re used to seeing. Take a look at this slurvy meatball he threw to Carlos Correa Thursday night.

That is not at all the Verlander hammer we’ve come to know and love. The lowered arm angle, which is especially pronounced this season on the curveball, produces more horizontal movement. It completely lacks the outstanding 12-6 depth that has made his curveball such a weapon throughout his career.

That’s more like it, as an example from earlier this season.

In 2016, hitters managed a pathetic 26 wRC+ against Verlander’s curveball. This season, he’s running a 144 wRC+ off the curveball. Last year, he gave up three home runs off it, in total. So far, he’s allowed two runs already, just a quarter of the way into the season. Finally, his flyball rate with the pitch is the overall culprit, as Verlander is allowing 13 percent more flyballs than he did in 2016.

The lower release point has had similar ill effects on Verlander’s slider at times, despite it’s notable bump in velocity. In fact, the slider actually isn’t breaking to Verlander’s glove side at all on average. Instead it’s even backing up on him a bit. Too often, it looks like a slower, straight, sinking fastball. Hitters haven’t teed off on it quite as badly as the curveball, but the hard slider that sparked an incredible run last season is now producing quite average success.

These are not good developments. It’s difficult to know if his poor control is entirely related, but here at least, we can actually see how the subtle change in his mechanics may be hurting his breaking pitches. That effect on his curveball and slider argues for the entire adjustment being rolled back.

It always bears mentioning that there’s more to it than we can break down with just a bit of video and some charts. There are ways in which Verlander could adjust his hand position, spine angle, or his stride and probably still get better action on the breaking pitches. It’s not just a simple matter of raising his arm more as he throws.

The devil is in the details. The pitching motion is a full body operation and all the parts of a pitcher’s delivery could be the root of a subtle arm angle change. The source may simply be inconsistent tempo. The release point is just the piece we can clearly see. This may well be a symptom, rather than the purpose, of the changes he’s working on.

The question is whether any of this is even necessary. It’s very hard to doubt Justin Verlander’s own opinion of his mechanics, but this is a point where he may need to rethink what he’s doing here. In his own words, he’s felt close to locked in at times, and at times he’s certainly looked it. But it’s hard to trust that any potential improvements are worth the suffering in the meantime.

Verlander knows as well as anyone that a pitcher has to regularly add new wrinkles to his game to stay on top, but maybe he’s also a victim of his own past success here. The halcyon days of 2011-2012, when he probably deserved back-to-back Cy Young awards, may have led him to look too far back in his quest for improvement. Take a look at his line from one particular four month stretch in his career.

Justin Verlander June to October

Season IP TBF ERA SO wOBA
Season IP TBF ERA SO wOBA
? 155.1 612 2.55 177 0.269

Pretty good, I’d say. That chart, represents his 2016 work from June 5th to the end of the season. There’s not a lot of room for improvement there. The Tigers would love to get a finish of roughly that quality this year. In fact they’re banking on it. Verlander doesn’t need to worry about getting back to his old MVP form. The Tigers just need him to be consistently good, and they need it quickly.