Verlander Upbeat, Continues Evolution

On Sunday, the results weren’t great for Justin Verlander as he allowed five runs, including three home runs and another 400 foot flyout, over 4 1/3 innings. The outing was full of disappointing results, in what had otherwise been a very encouraging spring. Such struggles were taken in stride by Verlander as he continues to remake himself after a difficult 2014 season.

Based on the results, it was a day to forget for Justin Verlander. He gave up five hits, including three home runs, over 4 1/3 innings. He also walked two and struck out two, while throwing 79 pitches, just 48 for strikes.

The results were one thing, and the balls that were struck don’t help tell a better story. While one of the three home runs had a favorable carry to it, the other two were no doubters, one to right that might have cleared the batting cage if it hadn’t hit the light tower, and another to left center that left fielder Yoenis Cespedes jogged for a few steps after before realizing it was deep and gone. In addition, in the first, Verlander gave up a deep fly ball to center that Rajai Davis tracked down at the warning track, but likely traveled more than 400 feet in the air.

Verlander’s fastball and slider were the primary culprits in allowing those deep flies, both pitches that he’s been working on improving and refining over these past few weeks of spring.

Despite the less than stellar results, Verlander was encouraged about the performance, citing better fastball velocity as well as improvement in his slider. After his outing Verlander said, “I was really trying to get my slider going today. The slider was 50% better today than it was last time. Half of them were good, half of them weren’t good at all, but that’s a lot better than it was last time out. Pretty encouraged by the good ones, now just have to get the consistency down.”

Tigers’ manager Brad Ausmus agreed, stating “That was the best we had seen his slider all spring,” later continuing, “The slider when it was down it was really good, and when it was up it was kind of a spinner and it got hit.”

As Verlander continues his evolution as a pitcher, the slider has become a pitch of much greater focus. He no longer has the upper-90’s or triple digit fastball, and because of it, needs to rely more heavily on his breaking pitches. His usage trend over the past few years backs that up.

From 2007 to 2012, Verlander focused on his fastball and changeup – he threw a slider or curveball less than one out of every four pitches. But in just two years, corresponding with a full two MPH drop in his fastball velocity, that changed dramatically. In 2014, he used a breaking pitch nearly once every three pitches.

Year Fastball Changeup Breaking Pitch FB Velocity
2007-12 60.7% 15.1% 24.2% 95.6 MPH
2013 56.5% 16.6% 26.9% 94.5 MPH
2014 56.2% 13.0% 30.8% 93.3 MPH
Velocity and usage data from BrooksBaseball.net

Given that, the growth and more importantly, the consistency of the pitch is going to be paramount. The results were impacted by that today, as Verlander alluded to. “I was really encouraged there in the second inning, I threw three in a row there, really good sliders. I kind of tinkered with my grip a little bit, and sometimes it helped. But the home run the last inning [the no doubter to deep left center] was a slider that backed up, up and in. It was a horrible one.”

Beyond the slider, Verlander was also upbeat about his fastball, despite a couple going for home runs, attributing that more to location than the quality of the pitch. About his fastball he said, “Overall, the fastball was better, it was coming out pretty good today. I’m usually a guy that gets stronger through spring, and this was probably the best my fastball has been since Seattle last year [May 30].”

That game was one of Verlander’s better ones last year, a 7 2/3 inning affair in which he gave up three runs on five hits, but struck out seven and walked just one over 120 pitches. His fastball velocity was very good that day as well, averaging out at 94.8 MPH.

As far as the fastball velocity Sunday in Lakeland, according to the Joker Marchant Stadium radar gun, he was sitting around 92 MPH with the fastball, but dialed it up to 95-96 on occasion. The gun has been inconsistent however, so it’s hard to conclude much from the velocity readings. Melvin Mercedes, who came in after Verlander and was subject to the same gun and usually throws 94-95 MPH, was routinely at 96-97 MPH. So, it’s likely Verlander was sitting in the low 90’s, possibly dialing it up to 95 MPH.

Of the other home runs he allowed, one he actually wasn’t disappointed with at all, only the result. Summarizing what happened on the fly ball from Michael Taylor that just cleared the right field fence in the third inning; “Yea that was a pretty good pitch – you don’t see many guys take that pitch and hit it oppo [opposite field] out. It was a perfect pitcher’s pitch, down and away on the black, just below the knees. He just got the barrel on it.”

The outing raised Verlander’s ERA to 6.08 over his four spring starts. Despite the runs though, Verlander was confident about the direction he was headed, when replying to his state of readiness for the season, saying, “I’m not there yet – I think the overall trend is what I want, especially my fastball has getting better and better every start.”

So, despite fans’ cries that Verlander might be washed up, or that he’s not adjusting to the fact that he no longer has the 100 MPH fastball to rely on, Verlander is fully aware, and making adjustments along the way. Days like today are just some growing pains on that path.


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