What Led to Justin Verlander’s Resurgence?

Veteran right-handed pitcher Justin Verlander was arguably the best pitcher in baseball from 2009 to 2012, averaging 238 innings pitched per season with a 145 ERA+ over that period. After leading the American league in ERA+ in both 2011 and 2012, and winning both the Cy Young and MVP awards in 2011, it began to look as if his pitch counts were catching up to him: His ERA+ dropped to 120 in 2013 and then to an alarming 85 in 2014. After a modest recovery in an injury-shortened 2015 (ERA+ of 118 in 133­­ ­⅓ innings) he started 2016 poorly, but bounced back after his first few games to put up an excellent season (3.04 ERA/136 ERA+ and a league-leading 1.001 WHIP). Setting aside his first nine games, his numbers were vintage Verlander: 2.53 ERA and 0.926 WHIP over 25 games and 170 ⅔ innings pitched.

What he throws. In 2016 Verlander threw a four-seam fastball (“FF”) with good velocity (average 93.9 mph, with a high just over 99 mph), slider (“SL”), curve (“CU”), and changeup (“CH”). Notice how his slider in particular showed a distinct cluster of pitches that are somewhat slower than the average velocity of 88.4 mph; those slower pitches were all thrown in his first few games of the season:

Justin VerlanderPitch usage and trends. Verlander’s main pitch is his fastball, which he threw 57.6% of the time, followed by his slider (17.9%) and curve (16.0%). His changeup is his least-used pitch (8.5%), especially to right-handed batters, to whom he threw more breaking pitches and just 5.4% changeups. When behind in the count, he cut back on his curve (6.2%); the 28 times in 2016 that he went to a 3-0 count, he didn’t throw any curves at all:

Justin VerlanderVerlander’s repertoire didn’t change much over the season, but his velocity did increase dramatically. All of his pitches were thrown harder after his first nine games, with the slider showing by far the greatest increase, from an average of 85.4 mph in his first nine games to 89.3 in the remaining 25, an increase of 3.9 mph. His other pitches increased velocity by 1.9 mph for his fastball (to an average of 94.4 mph), 2.4 mph for his curve, and 1.8 mph for his changeup. With the exception of the slider, these velocities are all in line with Verlander’s previous seasons; the slider was a distinctly faster pitch than he had thrown in past years:

Justin VerlanderPitch value. Over the season as a whole, Verlander’s most effective pitch was his curve, which had a much lower total bases per 100 pitches than the average. His fastball and slider both ended up just about average, while his changeup was a relatively ineffective pitch on its own, giving up far more total bases per pitch than average; of course, pitch value has to be considered in the context of other pitches, and his changeup probably made all his other pitches more effective because of the deception it provides. Verlander had excellent control, with a lower than average rate of balls per 100 pitches for all of his pitches:

Justin VerlanderIf we compare his pitch value in his first nine games (when his pitches were all slower) to the remaining 25 games, the main difference we see is in his control. His balls per 100 pitches were worse in his first nine games for his slider, change, and especially for his curve, which went from a rate of 47.4 balls per 100 pitches in the first nine games to a stellar 33.1 B/100 afterward. His fastball effectiveness also increased in terms of total bases per 100 pitches (from 10.7 to 7.7 TB/100 ), although his least-used pitch, the changeup, declined from 7.5 to 17.2 TB/100:

Justin VerlanderPitch location. Verlander’s pitch location also changed significantly from his first nine games to his remaining 25. His fastball location became sharper, showing two clear targets for left-handed batters at the upper inside and outside corners of the strike zone. His slider also became much sharper, with tight clusters right on the inside edge of the strike zone to left-handed batters and the outside edge to righties; in his first nine games, the pitch often missed the strike zone altogether to right-handed batters. The same is true for his curve, which also moved back into the strike zone:

Justin Verlander

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Featured image courtesy of Duane Burleson/AP Photo.