Ian York takes a look at how new Astros pitcher Justin Verlander has evolved over his career. He’s also has done a visual analysis on Red Sox pitchers Chris Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez, and David Price, among others.
The Red Sox are fairly familiar with Justin Verlander, having faced him often when he played for the Detroit Tigers, and generally have fared pretty poorly against him. Of the current Sox, only Mitch Moreland (.863) and Eduardo Nunez (.961) have decent OPSes against Verlander; as a team, they have a .540 OPS. Dustin Pedroia has a .247 OPS against him in 34 plate appearances.
That isn’t surprising. Verlander has been an excellent pitcher for a long time. Over his 13-year career, the right-hander has a career ERA of 3.46 (ERA+ of 124). He has led the American League in ERA+ twice and in WHIP twice; he has a Cy Young award, an MVP award, and a Rookie of the Year award, and has received Cy Young votes in a further six seasons.
After a down year in 2014 (ERA+ of 85) he returned to ace form in 2016 (placing second in Cy Young voting). In 2017, starting 33 games between the Tigers and the Houston Astros, Verlander has a win-loss record of 15-8, an ERA of 3.36 (ERA+ of 133) and a 1.175 WHIP. He had the best year of his career for walks, with a BB9 of 1.3, less than half his career number of 2.7. His five games in September for the Astros have been even better (ERA 1.06, .647 WHIP).
What he throws. Verlander’s main pitchers are his four-seam fastball (“FF”), slider (“SL”) and curve (“CU”). He also mixes in an occasional cutter (“FC”) — a fairly recent addition to his repertoire — and a changeup (“CH”).
Verlander used to be among the hardest-throwing pitchers in the major leagues, with his FB velocity increasing as the game wore on. His fastball is still well above average in velocity, averaging 95.3 mph and reaching as high as 99.8 mph on occasion, but with the increase in league fastball velocity he isn’t quite as exceptional as he was in 2011, when he won his Cy Young award.
In both 2016 and 2017, his slider had two distinctly different velocities, with one cluster averaging around 90.0 mph, and a second several miles per hour slower, averaging 87.4 mph. He switched abruptly between the two types in the middle of the season; in his start against Boston on June 10 his slider averaged 89.5, while five days later against the Tampa Bay Rays it was 87.5 mph, and gradually slowed down even more over the course of the season, finishing averaging 86.5 mph against the Texas Rangers on September 27. (In 2016, he did the opposite, starting the season with a slow slider and then abruptly switching to a faster one in mid-June.)
Pitch usage and trends. Verlander’s main pitch is his four-seam fastball (56.8% of pitches), with his curve and slider making up almost all of the remainder; his cutter and changeup are rare pitches (except, for some reason, on 1-0 counts, when changeups represented 11.0% of his pitches). He doesn’t adjust his repertoire much to righties or lefties, and only has moderate platoon splits (right-handed batters OPS .614 against him; lefties, .712). When behind in the count, he uses his curve much less (6.7%, compared to 22.4% when ahead in the count)
Aside from the sudden change in his slider velocity, Verlander didn’t change much during the season. He gradually was reducing his curve use over the season, but after joining the Astros (indicated with the blue lines in the charts below) his curve usage edged back up a little.
Pitch value. The reason he doesn’t use his changeup very much is easy to see from the total bases per 100 pitches it yields: It just isn’t a very good pitch, especially to right-handed batters, who tend to hit it hard and often. His slider was also a little below average in terms of TB/100, and his curve is about average. He makes it all up, though, with his four-seam fastball, which as well as being his most frequent pitch, is also his best, among the best among starting pitchers to both right- and left-handed batters.
The other way Verlander gets results is by throwing strikes, as his excellent walk rate suggests. All his pitches are just about average or a little better in terms of balls per 100 pitches except for his curve, which is only slightly below average.
His cutter is so rarely used that I didn’t show its value here, but of the 45 cutters he threw this year not one was hit. Over half (23) were balls, and only 4 were put into play; all were outs.
Pitch location. Verlander challenges hitters with all his pitches. His fastballs are in the upper third of the strike zone, while his curve and changeups are near the bottom, but most of the pitches are clearly inside the zone rather than trying to nibble at the edges. His slider and curve are occasionally thrown outside the zone (outside to right-handed batters, inside to lefties), but even for them, a majority of the pitches are inside the strike zone.
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Featured image courtesy of houstonchronicle.com