On September 1st, one of the biggest trades of the 2017 season took place. Justin Verlander, long time Detroit Tigers ace, was sent to the Houston Astros for a prospect package. It signaled the end of an era in Detroit baseball, as the transition to rebuilding the franchise was capped off by trading Verlander. At the same time, a new era began in Houston with the acquisition of the veteran righty. The Astros are in full win-now mode, just as the Tigers were during the first part of Verlander’s career. Once again, Verlander is in almost the exact same position he’s been in many times before, just in a different uniform.
The news of this trade set the baseball world on fire. The hot topic of discussion around the trade was how well Verlander would perform given his decline in 2014 and 2015 despite a resurgence in 2016 which allowed him to finish second in the Cy Young voting. The beginning of 2017 was much different than 2016 as he struggled, with a 4.73 ERA, a 4.29 FIP and an xFIP over 5 in the first half of the season. Verlander again appeared to be regressing — at least in terms of results — despite the fact that his velocity was the strongest it had been since his MVP and Cy Young season in 2011. By all accounts Verlander was as healthy and strong physically as he had ever been before; the results just weren’t there yet.
By July however, he began turning around his season. After Verlander’s first start in July on the second day of the month in which he didn't record a strikeout for the first time since May 4, 2007 (a streak of 331 games, which was the longest active streak in the majors), Verlander has only allowed more than two runs in three out of his 15 total starts since.
He also began pitching deeper into games, pitching at least seven innings in 10 of those 15 starts. And since being traded to Houston, Verlander has taken it up even another level. He’s made five starts for the Astros so far and has allowed four total runs over the course of the 34 innings he’s pitched, good for an ERA of 1.05.
Two of Verlander’s five ten-strikeout games this season have come during his short time with the Astros. He’s also dropped his walk rate to 5.2 percent, down from the 9.2 percent it was before he was traded. His strikeout rate has also increased, up to 33.3 percent from the 24.1 percent it was before the trade. So not only is Verlander walking fewer batters, he’s also striking out more batters at the same time. Furthermore, he has dropped his batting average against by over 60 points since becoming an Astro. The chart below shows just how good he’s been since being acquired, as I compared his five starts with Houston to his best stretch of five starts this season prior to being acquired.
|Jul 8 - Jul 30
|Sept 5 - Sept 27
|Jul 8 - Jul 30
|Sept 5 - Sept 27
So what exactly is Verlander doing to make himself so successful at this stage of the season? Almost everyone knew he was physically capable of being an ace again, it was just a matter of how or in what manner Verlander would pull it off.
The biggest concern before and since the trade was his absent changeup, which he used a majority of the time against left-handers as an equalizer to the matchups that favors opposite-handed batters. Verlander’s changeup usage has been decreasing steadily since it peaked during the 2012 season at 17.44 percent. This year, however, is the first time it’s dipped below 8 percent, as it currently sits at just slightly under four percent. As far back as April there were concerns, and they continued into July and beyond about the lack of usage and results when it was used.
The struggle to find success with the changeup forced Verlander to find another route to the dominance against both-handed batters needed to become an ace-level of pitcher again. So he began experimenting with his slider, starting in the second half of the season. He developed a couple of different sliders which only varied slightly, just enough so that it kept the batters guessing as to how fast it would be or to when and where it would break.
In doing so he’s made the slider his second-most used pitch behind his four-seamer (which has always been his most used pitch). His slider has been off the charts in terms of success since he began experimenting. In fact, it has gone from a 23.6 percent whiff per swing pitch up to a 38.7 percent whiff per swing pitch since the start of July.
He’s continued to use the curveball, however, just a few percentage points less than his average for the season. When paired with the increase in slider usage, it seems as though Verlander has really taken the curveball out of the hitters’ mind: the whiff per swing rate on his curveball has increased drastically too.
A big driver of these remarkable changes to whiff rate seems to be his sequencing, at least when he’s ahead in the count. He’s increased the slider usage to at least 20 percent in 0-1 and 0-2 counts and increased it up to over 30 percent for 1-2 and 2-2 counts. When you’re getting the type of swings and misses that Verlander has been getting these last three months and you increase the usage of your best swing and miss pitch — especially in counts you’re ahead in — you can certainly expect more strikeouts.
But what about the walks; how did he lower his walk rate so significantly? It’s obviously natural to see a slight decrease in walks if you increase your strikeouts, since chances are batters are not seeing a three-ball count as often. However, that wouldn’t explain almost halving your season walk rate in a matter of weeks as Verlander has done.
47 of his 72 walks have come off his four-seamer, so something must’ve changed there, right? You’d be correct in that assumption as it appears Verlander is locating the four-seamer much closer to the edge resulting in more strikes. This is really aiding in limiting the walks, as he can be much more confident in throwing the four-seamer at the top of the zone which is a perfect location for a power pitcher like Verlander.
Between Verlander’s newfound success with his slider(s), his edge-focused location of the four-seamer, and his curveball’s transition to surprise pitch, he’s put himself back in the position of Astros’ ace. There’s no doubt he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last three months, and certainly the best pitcher on the Astros.
If Verlander keeps this up, we’re going to be seeing much more of the classic JV we saw from him with the Tigers during their postseason runs. I would not be surprised to see him be the game one starter for the American League Division Series, as Verlander appears to be the lynch-pin of this Houston rotation given his performance since the acquisition.
With the smell of a deep postseason run in Houston, Verlander is hungry for the World Series ring he never obtained while in Detroit, and he’s most certainly pitching like every game is game seven.