Dare I say quietly, Justin Verlander is having a very good 2016 season. He has the second highest strikeout rate of his career (which is saying something because from 2009-2012 he had a solid case for the best pitcher in baseball), is walking fewer batters, has a 3.33 ERA, a 3.64 FIP, and is 12th in the league in WAR (FanGraphs). Was Verlander a top 15 pitcher two years ago? Not even close. He wasn’t even average. Last year he showed signs of improvement, but injuries took their toll. So what’s he doing differently this season? Well, a couple things.
First, let’s look at his pitch selection. You’ll see that, over his career, his fastball usage (black) has remained steady. His curveball usage (orange) has also remained more or less the same.
Change has come in the form of his changeup (blue) and slider (red). Let’s zoom in on those pitches.
- From 2009-2012 (his good stretch): batters had a .534 OPS against his changeup
- 2013 (things started to go bad): .745 OPS against changeup
- 2014 (things went really bad): .823 OPS against changeup
About halfway through 2014, when Verlander was likely searching for anything to go his way, his slider usage finally surpassed his changeup usage.
- 2014-now: .532 OPS against his slider
- 2014-now: .802 OPS against his changeup (it’s still bad, but he’s throwing it less)
For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to get into why Verlander’s changeup has seen a drop off. But this is very interesting:
Now to address Verlander’s spike in strikeouts. His 9.7 strikeouts per 9 innings in 2016 is second only to his 10.1 mark during his aforementioned breakout 2009 campaign. Back then, his average fastball velocity was 95.6 mph. So far in 2016, it’s 93.6– or a full 2 mph slower. You hear all the time, “a pitcher has to learn how to pitch when he sees his velocity drop.” Verlander did– albeit in a unique way. He began throwing fastballs towards the top of the strike zone, which it pretty much the exact opposite of what every little league/high school/college coach tells you to do. Take a look:
2009-2014: Catcher’s View
2016: Catcher’s View
Verlander’s career strikeout percentage on fastballs is 19%. This year it’s 30%– his highest mark ever. Essentially, this is saying that 30% of all plate appearances that end on a fastball also end with a strikeout.
To summarize, there’s a couple of things that Verlander is doing differently this season than he has done in the past. He’s throwing more sliders, less changeups, and is throwing his fastball up in the zone. The latter of which can help explain his spike in strikeouts. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and Verlander is making them.