Three Key Issues Facing Justin Verlander

We all know that something (or many things) are off with Justin Verlander. Just what is the source of his problems? While Brad Ausmus and Jeff Jones work to fix him, TigsTown looks to explain why he's struggling in a way Tigers fans haven't seen since 2008.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 15 starts, Justin Verlander has a 4.98 ERA. He's walking nearly four batters per nine innings (the most since 2008) and is only striking out 6.4 per nine (the least since 2006). His FIP is 4.09, which is the worst since 2008. He's been good for 1.4 fWAR, which on a per start basis, is good for just 0.09 wins per start, which would be the worst of his career, since he became a member of the rotation.

Why exactly is Verlander not having success? There are a number of reasonable hypotheses, and none of them have anything to do with Kate Upton.

For starters, not only is Verlander old, but he's put extensive work on his arm over the last decade. In what amounts to 8.5 years of starting, he's accumulated well over 1800 innings pitched, throwing nearly 31,000 pitches.

To put that number of over 30,000 pitches into context, not only does it lead all of baseball, but it does so by a wide margin. Dan Haren is the next closest, with a little over 28,000 pitches. Verlander has thrown an additional 2,000 pitches more than any other pitcher in Major League Baseball from 2006 to today. Verlander has been a workhorse, and that will take its toll sooner or later.

In addition, it's far too conveniently overlooked that he had core muscle surgery in early January that required at least six weeks of rehab. Having pitched into late October last season, Verlander likely took some time off in November, and then began a workout regimen in December that would target to have him fully prepared for a grueling season when he reported for camp in mid-February. Instead, he lost most of that crucial time. And that's not even accounting for what sort of impact the surgery and injury could have had on his mechanics, both bad habits he possibly developed to compensate for pain, as well as adjusting to post-surgery feel.

So, with those concepts understood, why is Verlander getting lit up? TigsTown has boiled it down to three, all inter-related issues.

1) Fastball velocity is down

This isn't really a surprise to anyone, but Verlander's velocity is down. Likely the result of age (Verlander is now 31) and use (already discussed), he's not dialing the fastball up like he used to.

Some might quibble that his average fastball velocity isn't that bad, and they're right, it's not THAT bad. He's sitting just over 94 MPH so far this season, down about a half MPH from 2013.

But remember, Verlander is the sort of pitcher that would throw a number of relatively average velocity fastballs, and then pull back and gun it when he needed that extra little bit to get that one out he needed. When he pulls back, his max velocity isn't what it used to be, either.

So, while his average velocity has only dipped about 1 MPH since 2012, his max fastball velocity has gone from 103 MPH in 2011 to only around 99 this year. When you need to blow a pitch by that one guy, four MPH of velo is a pretty substantial difference.

This decline in fastball velocity leads to problem number two.

2) He's using his breaking pitches a lot more

Verlander has traditionally been a pitcher that pitched off his fastball. His fastball was his bread-and-butter, he'd use his changeup to keep hitters off-balance, and then he'd work in his slider and curveball.

From 2007 until 2013, he was relying on his fastball and his changeup predominantly. He'd use those two pitches about 75% of the time, and then his slider and curve would make up the mix of the other 25%.

This year however, he's using his fastball less, and in turn, his changeup less. Whereas he used those two pitches 75% of the time, he's now only using them about 67% of the time. That means the pitches he previously used as complimentary breaking pitches are becoming a larger part of his repertoire.

Why's he doing that? The fastball doesn't have the same punch, and so it's getting hit more. From 2007 to 2013, Verlander's fastball had an average against of .264 and a whiff rate of 9%. Now, he's allowing hitters to hit .301 off the fastball, and only getting whiffs about 6% of the time.

This means instead he's turning to the curve and slider.

The decline in the fastball is having an even bigger impact on the changeup's effectiveness though. This of course makes sense; when hitters aren't as scared of the fastball, it's easier to prepare to hit the changeup. And boy is the changeup getting hit. Not only is he allowing a .310 average on it, but hitters are slugging .517 off the pitch.

Without the power fastball, the changeup loses its effectiveness, forcing Verlander to go to the curveball and slider more often. This is another indicator of the final problem;

3) His plan against LHH/RHH hitters is no longer working

JV's strategy wasn't overly complicated. He'd pitch off the fastball, no matter the type of hitter, with roughly 75% of the time him throwing a first pitch fastball. If the batter got ahead, he'd usually be firing a fastball. If he got ahead, he'd combine the curve and change against lefties, and the slider and curve against righties.

But without the same power fastball, he's only starting hitters out with a fastball about 65% of the time, instead going with a lot more first pitch sliders against righties, and a lot more changeups against lefties.

If the batter gets ahead, and he's facing a right-hander, there's only about a 55% chance he'll throw a fastball. Why? Righties are crushing his fastball when they know it's coming. Righties are slugging .635 (SIX THIRTY FIVE!) on Verlander's fastball, and they're also slugging .480 on his curveball. This forces him to rely heavily on his slider when he's facing a righty and the batter is ahead, only the slider is a ball more than 40% of the time, which just puts him further behind in the count.

"Righties are crushing his fastball when they know it's coming. Righties are slugging .635 (SIX THIRTY FIVE!) on Verlander's fastball, and they're also slugging .480 on his curveball."

On the other hand, when he's facing a lefty, he tries to mix in the changeup more, including again on the first pitch and when the batter is ahead in the count. The pitch is now less effective without being able to rely on the fastball as much, hitters know to sit on the change, and they're hitting it at a .327 clip, with a .225 ISO.

Overall

This is some clear evidence that Verlander is in need of either some serious tweaks, or possibly a reinvention of his approach on the mound. Without an overpowering fastball, Verlander's approach can't work, and his complimentary pitches aren't as effective when they need to be more heavily relied upon.

The good news is that when you examine Verlander's whiff rates, and pitch movement, he's still throwing good pitches. He's not grooving a lot more pitches than what he traditionally did. He just has to adjust to create a plan that isn't dependent on the power fastball, and instead begin to re-invent himself, knowing that he'll no longer be able to reach back and find 100 MPH whenever he wants it.


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