Justin Verlander had a resurgent season last year, finishing second in the Cy Young voting for only the second time in his career. Much of that success was due to his slider, as it finished ninth in overall pitch value and 11th in pitch value per 100 pitches among all qualified starters. It also set a record for Verlander on highest pitch value per 100 pitches among all pitches he threw at least 50 times in a season, according to FanGraphs.
Justin Verlander’s Pitch Values
The big reason his slider was so successful was an ad hoc change in the type of slider he was throwing. Last year Verlander debuted a variant on the pitch that he still referred to as a slider and what Brooks Baseball sometimes labels a cutter. The Detroit News’ Chris McCosky talked to him last season about it.
According to the interview he began throwing it last season after a bad start against the Cleveland Indians on May 3rd. He had been struggling through the first month of the 2016 season, leading him to try something new. Verlander has stated that he threw the modified slider almost exclusively from that point on, which Brooks Baseball didn’t seem to notice. However, it was apparent to the naked eye that the new version, which averaged close to 90 miles per hour, was a markedly different pitch than the version he’d used most of his career.
Analysts and fans weren’t the only ones a bit confused in trying to define the new pitch. If it’s this hard to tell the difference between Verlander’s slider and cut-slider for the professionals at Pitch Info – who manually review Brooks’ PITCHf/x each and every day – can you imagine how difficult it is for a hitter when they don’t have the luxury at looking at PITCHf/x data?
Comparing PITCHf/x data from 2016 prior to the change we can conclude that he continued throwing the cutter style version almost exclusively this season up through his start against Boston on June 10th. To that point he struggled quite a bit with his results and thus it appears he switched back to a more classic slider, with similar movement but a few ticks lower in velocity.
The change came in conjunction with an adjustment in Verlander’s delivery to try and get on top of the ball a little more. As we documented earlier this season, his release point in April and May was just about as low as it has been for his entire career, and it was sapping the depth from both the slider and the curveball. An adjustment in Verlander’s timing helped get his release point a little higher, and his production has taken off in the second half of the season as a result.
Between Opening Day and June 10th this season, Verlander’s slider never averaged below 89.85 mph. Since his start against Boston on June 10th – the last time his slider averaged above 88mph in any start – his slider’s average velocity is 87.8mph. Sometimes you see a version that stays up and edges off the plate glove side. Other times the slider has decidedly more depth as he buries it to the back foot of left-handed hitters particularly.
I have attempted to chart the changes in the slider and separate them using the timeline Verlander gave in that interview, plus what I’ve been able to tell from that sudden change in velocity. As you can see from the chart below, his original slider had a good mix of horizontal and vertical movement as most sliders do. The hard cutter-like version he discovered last season had less depth and was closer to a straight, rifle spin style slider. However, after the adjustment in June, it has gained depth and that has held true even when thrown harder.
Justin Verlander’s Slider
|Time Period||Count||Velocity||Hmov (in)||Vmov (in)|
|Time Period||Count||Velocity||Hmov (in)||Vmov (in)|
|2011 - 2012||791||85.53||2.56||1.04|
|April - May 3rd, 2016||110||84.84||1.61||2.81|
|Post May 3rd, 2016||515||89.45||0.55||5.65|
|April - June 10, 2017||267||90.59||-0.46||5.26|
|Since June 10th 2017||321||87.80||0.94||3.17|
|Brooks labeled cutters||49||89.78||1.15||5.61|
This leads me to believe he doesn’t have just two sliders, but rather several different sliders depending on the situation. In recent months, we’ve seen the classic slider around 86 mph with at least an inch of moment both horizontally and vertically, which he’s used since debuting the slider in 2009. We’ve also seen the hybrid of a slider and cutter which moves more like a slider but with cutter velocity. And we’ve seen what appears to be a straight cutter with little horizontal movement and thrown around 90-91 mph.
Shane Greene has shown us something quite similar, as last year Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris detailed how Greene basically has four different breaking pitches. It’s possible Verlander is even taking a page out of Greene’s book, playing with the grip to get different results.
Regardless of where the idea or inspiration is coming from, as long as Verlander continues to find the success he’s had since modifying his slider, you’ll continue to see him tinkering with it. Rather than perfecting one version, he seems now to be mixing them up at will. The tough part from here is trying to keep tabs on which variant he’s throwing, which is no doubt exponentially more difficult for the hitters. The ability to manipulate the velocity and movement, customizing them to the situation, is a whole new weapon, even if he’s leaned on each variant at different points in the past.
It’s no coincidence that as his feel for manipulating the pitch has come along, so have his results. In two of his last three starts, Verlander has been nearly unhittable. He one-hit the Pirates for eight innings back on August 9th. After a messy outing against the Rangers, he came right back to dominate the red-hot Los Angeles Dodgers on August 20th, allowing just two hits in another eight inning masterpiece. The high strikeout rate he pulled off in 2016 has returned. With a second half ERA of 2.48, and a strikeout rate of 28.8 percent, this is the Verlander that should’ve picked up a second Cy Young award in 2016.
One thing is for certain. Justin Verlander isn’t going to tell us what he’s doing. Whether he’s fundamentally altering his grip, or at least the pressure points, or changing his wrist action, we’re probably not going to hear it from the man himself. Verlander hates to give anything away. And that’s just fine by us. The looks of confusion on opposing hitters’ faces is evidence enough.