Tigers fans are all asking the same question: "What's wrong with Justin Verlander?" The man widely regarded as the best pitcher in the American League over the past two years is not quite the same pitcher who won the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards in 2011 and finished runner up for the former prize in 2012. In this post, I'm going to discuss just how much he is lacking and use the Pitch F/X data do explore what the problem is.
It's not all bad for the Tigers supposed ace this year. His 10.2 strikeouts per game is the best rate of his career and places him fourth in the league. He has a 2.87 FIP (Fielding Independent pitching ERA) which is slightly better than last year (2.94) and seventh best in the American League. That and his elevated Batting Average on Balls in Play or BABIP (.347 in 2013 versus .287 for his career) suggest that he may be having some bad luck on balls in play this year.
The bad news is Verlander's 3.90 ERA, up from 2.40 in 2011 and 2.64 last year and it's not all misfortune. At 3.2 batters per nine innings, his walk rate is up about a full walk per game over last year ( 2.3) which he has only himself to blame.
While he can perhaps share some of the responsibility with fielders for his high BABIP, he has been hit harder this year than in the past. Verlander's 23.2% line drive rate on batted balls is the worst of his career and his rate of extra base hits per nine innings has risen from 2.3 in 2012 to 2.8 in 2013. The higher batting average and additional power allowed has resulted in his OPS against increasing from .601 to .708.
So, what is happening? I don't think there is a simple answer, but the Pitch F/X data at Brooks Baseball gives us some clues. Figures 1 and 2 below show that this year seems to be part of an ongoing transformation from power pitcher to finesse pitcher.
Figure 1 shows that the velocity of his average four-seam fastball has gradually fallen from 96 MPH in 2009 to 93 MPH this year. This is not alarming and I don't believe it is out-of-line with the typical progression of a pitcher his age. The fact that his strikeout rate has not dropped at all should tell us that decreased velocity is not his main problem.
FIGURE 1 ( BrooksBaseball.net)
Figure 2 shows that his pitch selection is changing along with the decreased velocity which makes sense. He threw 68% fastballs in 2009 and is down to 56% now. Moreover, his most frequent secondary pitch is no longer his biting curve, but rather his change-up. He has gone from 20% curves and 10% change-ups in 2009 to 12% and 19% respectively this year.
He surely is not a finesse pitcher yet and will probably never fully reach that point, but he is trending in that direction. So, one possible reason for his struggles is that he may have reached a point in his evolution where he is not yet comfortable with the amount of finesse which is now required.
FIGURE 2 ( BrooksBaseball.net)
Figure 3 shows an unexpected change in his mechanics. I don't know if it's a calibration issue or whether it's completely real, but the chart shows that the release point of his pitches has increased between 3 and 4 inches between 2011 and 2013 with a lot of that coming this year. Pitching coaches typically get more concerned when a pitcher's release point drops, but every pitcher is different. I have to believe there is such as thing of too high of a release point especially when he was performing at an elite level before the change.
FIGURE 3 ( BrooksBaseball.net)
I don't know much about pitching mechanics, but when a ball is thrown from a different angle, it can change the way the ball spins out a pitcher's hand. It would make sense that this could result in different movement in pitches. Figure 4 shows a decrease in movement (closer to 0 the y-axis) on both his fastball and curveball.
FIGURE 4 ( BrooksBaseball.net)
How is the decreased effectiveness of both his fastball and curve affecting his performance? The whiffs (swings and misses) per swing on his fastball have gone from 21% in 2012 to 16% in 2013. So, it's been easier to hit and they've been hitting it hard with the line drive rate increasing from17% in 2012 to 26% this year. Consequently opponent batting and slugging averages have risen from .246/.417 to .301/.454.
While the whiff rate on his curve has not suffered and it's still a dominating pitch, he is allowing harder contact on that pitch as well. The line drive rate has gone from 18% to 26% and the averages from .135/.199 to .156/.250 between 2012-2013.
This is all exploratory, but those are two basic theories of why he is struggling: (1) he is going through an evolution from power pitcher to finesse pitcher. (2) his pitch release point has changed too much. Both seem fixable to me. I'm a numbers guy though and no expert on the process of pitching, so would welcome the input of anyone who knows more.
Remember, I did a similar analysis of Porcello a while back showing why he had improved and he's been awful in the two starts since then. Maybe, Verlander can reverse his fortunes in a good way tonight.,