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How Justin Verlander thrives as a fly ball pitcher

More fly balls should lead to more home runs, but not for Verlander!

Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

There are two kinds of greatness. The first kind is the player who does everything the right way. This is a player who is so fundamentally precise that coaches and analysts use him as an example. This is Greg Maddux’s pitching motion or any of the Molina’s pitch framing.

The second kind of greatness is just the opposite, the player who breaks the rules but somehow it works anyway. For example, no one would ever teach a young player to swing at pitches down by the ankles, but Vladimir Guerrero managed to hit enough of them hard that he reached the Hall of Fame.

The Astros have many great players, but none moreso than Justin Verlander. The 35-year-old future Hall of Famer is enjoying the best season of his career so far. But which type of greatness is he? Does he do what other pitchers do, just better? Or does he carve his own path towards excellence that no one else can follow? Let’s examine his batted balls allowed to find the answer.

Ground Balls Vs. Fly Balls

Ground balls are good for pitchers. No one ever hits home runs on grounders, and even doubles are very rare. On the whole, MLB players are batting .236 this season on ground balls, with a .257 SLG.

Fly balls are much worse for pitchers. Every home run and nearly every extra base hit is either a fly ball or line drive. MLB has a slightly lower batting average on fly balls (.227), but a .681 SLG.

It stands to reason that the best pitchers should limit their fly balls. Let’s take a look at the FB% leaders to see if that holds up.

MLB FB% Leaders

Name FB%
Name FB%
Justin Verlander 56.50%
Marco Estrada 54.40%
Jake Odorizzi 49.60%

So much for that hypothesis! Verlander allows a higher percentage of fly balls than any other pitcher, and it’s not even close. Anyone who gives up that many fly balls should be especially homer prone, right? Especially in Minute Maid Park!

Well...not really. Verlander has only surrendered nine home runs this season, or 0.76 HR/9. That’s 11th best in baseball among qualified starters. The pitcher who allows the most fly balls in the game is one of the stingiest with home runs! The ten pitchers ahead of him in HR/9 average 33.2 FB%, which is way, way lower than Verlander’s 56.5%.

Fly Balls, Not Long Balls

Verlander thrives as a fly ball pitcher by giving up very few HR per fly ball. Take a look at the HR/FB leaders.

MLB HR/FB Leaders

Name HR/FB
Name HR/FB
Trevor Bauer 5.4%
Jhoulys Chacin 6.3%
Justin Verlander 6.5%

Verlander gets tagged for a HR just 6.5% of the time batters hit the ball in the air. Considering that he lives and dies by the fly ball, this is pretty important.

He survives this way by making sure fly balls hit against him aren’t hit very hard. His average exit velocity on fly balls is 90.1 MPH. That ranks in the 85th percentile among all pitchers in baseball (minimum 25 fly balls allowed).

Launch angle gives us an even clearer picture of how Verlander limits dingers. He’s tied for the third highest average launch angle on fly balls in all of baseball.

Highest Launch Angle on Fly Balls (min. 25)

Pitcher FB Allowed Exit Velocity Launch Angle
Pitcher FB Allowed Exit Velocity Launch Angle
Matthew Boyd 65 89.6 40.1
Josh Fields 30 89.7 39.9
Elieser Hernandez 32 89.5 39.7
Justin Verlander 85 90.1 39.7

Not only is Verlander forcing batters to hit soft fly balls, he’s inducing higher flies as well. Obvioiusly, when the ball travels higher, it doesn’t go as far. Those are both critical attributes to home run prevention.

Soft, high fly balls aren’t the only reason why Verlander is an outstanding pitcher. His 6.2 K/BB and 2.10 DRA are among the best in baseball. With a 32% K-rate, he really doesn’t allow too much contact at all. But the batters who do connect off Verlander are very likely to pop up an easy fly ball to the outfield. This approach might not work for too many other pitchers, but it’s a big part of what makes him great.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at Tweets @depstein1983