During his peak, Justin Verlander was known for one thing: velocity.
In the days when he was dominating the American League and winning the Cy Young award, the hallmark of Verlander’s game was his 100 mph fastball, something he was able to maintain into the late innings of starts.
As with most players, Verlander started to decline, and in 2014, he allowed the most earned runs in the American League. While the decline may have been quick by most standards, Verlander was 31 and losing his best trait. His average fastball velocity dipped to as low as 92 mph in September of that year. As a result, Verlander was unable to strike out nearly as many hitters. His strikeout rate of 17.8 percent was the lowest of his career, dropping nearly six percentage points from 2013.
But, as soon as we dismissed Verlander, he came back. After a two season fall, Verlander returned to near-Cy Young form in 2016, posting a 3.04 ERA and a 254:57 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 227 2⁄3 innings pitched, his highest workload since 2012. The results were supported with better stuff. As the year progressed, Verlander’s velocity increased, and his average fastball velocity of 95.26 mph in September 2016 was his highest since the end of the 2012 season.
Here we are almost one year later. Now, Verlander has been the subject of trade rumors after clearing recoverable waivers earlier this month. And he’s actually still getting better.
Last week, I went to Verlander’s start in Baltimore. He pitched very well, but what I was most surprised about was the velocity. I knew that Verlander’s fastball had started to decline over the past few years, but I didn’t realize that it had made this comeback. During the start, Verlander hit 100 mph on the radar gun, which shocked me. And for good reason.
That pitch was the first time Verlander had touched 100 mph with the fastball since his September 1, 2013 start against Cleveland. That’s almost four years, and it could mean that we are seeing a rebirth for Verlander.
Check out his maximum velocity graph by month:
Verlander has seen a significant uptick in his maximum fastball velocity even just since last year, when it “only” hovered around 97 to 98 mph. He’s found the 99-100 mph fastball once again, which could bode well for his future, even at age 34.
In the start against the Orioles, Verlander went seven innings, allowing two runs on four hits, walking none and striking out 10. That night, we saw “classic Verlander.”
He followed it up with a similarly excellent start against the Pittsburgh Pirates on August 9. His control was a bit off, but he was very effective. Turning in his best start of the season, Verlander pitched eight innings, allowing no runs on one hit, walking three and striking out six. His maximum fastball velocity? 98 mph.
Over the last 30 days, Verlander has the ninth-best ERA in the Major Leagues (2.01). His K%-BB% of 20 percent ranks 20th. And, his overall fWAR of 0.9 ranks 14th. Verlander is pitching like a top-notch starting pitcher right now, and it is not a coincidence that this is happening in combination with a better fastball.
Being able to bring the heat is a very important factor in a pitcher’s success. Being able to crank it up a notch typically improves a pitcher’s run prevention abilities, and losing a notch hurts his effectiveness. Starting pitchers improve by about one run allowed per nine innings for every gain of 4 mph, and relief pitchers improve by about one run per nine innings for every gain of 2.5 mph.
Why did Verlander struggle for those two years before having a resurgence since 2016? It may have to do with health. Verlander had core muscle surgery in the 2014 offseason, and as far I know, a strong core leads to better fastball results. He still turned in a full workload of starts that year, but he did spend some time on the disabled list the following year in 2015 with a triceps strain.
Both of those issues may have caused this in Verlander’s average fastball velocity by year:
So, it’s no surprise that Verlander is much better now than he was in 2014, as his averaged fastball velocity has jumped by about 2.5 mph. That doesn’t explain, though, why Verlander hasn’t returned to his elite levels of performance over a full season. It should be noted that his ERA, FIP and DRA are all better than the MLB average, but those numbers aren’t even close to “peak-Verlander” numbers.
Why? It’s his control. I alluded to it a bit earlier, when I mentioned his start against the Pirates. He walked three, which is a bit out of character for him. Let’s take a look at his called strike probability (CS Prob) and his Called Strikes Above Average (CSAA), two stats from Baseball Prospectus, from 2013 to 2017:
Justin Verlander’s control, 2013 to 2017
To quickly explain, called strike probability (CS Prob) looks at a pitcher’s control — his ability to throw pitches in the strike zone. Called strikes above average (CSAA), however, looks at a pitcher’s command — his ability to generate more called strikes than the average pitcher, absent of framing and other factors. For a more full explanation, check out this article from Jeff Long, Jonathan Judge and Harry Pavlidis on Baseball Prospectus.
Anyway, Verlander’s command (CSAA) reached elite levels in 2016 but has fallen to a five-year low this year. The results support this. Verlander’s walk rate of 10.1 percent is easily the highest mark of his career; it’s the first time it’s ever been in the double-digits. As mentioned above, his command has been better of late, but it still has not been as good as it once was. That’s why Verlander isn’t as good as he was even just last year. His walk rate is the fourth-highest in baseball.
While Verlander’s velocity has returned, his command is far below where it once was. We aren’t witnessing “classic Verlander.” Rather, we are seeing a new version of him, one that throws hard but struggles more with throwing strikes.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.