Breaking it Down: Verlander’s resurgence

Houston’s acquisition of Justin Verlander at the July trading deadline last season helped the Astros’ win their first world championship. The 35-year old isn’t done yet as he’s continued to redefine himself as he’s become a top five pitcher in the American League through 2018’s first month.

Verlander’s numbers are extremely impressive as his slash line (ERA/FIP/xFIP) is 1.36/2.83/3.55 while striking out a careerhigh 32.4% of batters and walking a career low of 5.4%. His strikeout and walk rates aren’t the only reason the veteran has been so dominant this season as he’s able to limit he hard contact on balls put in play while having the rate of soft contact slightly increase — his medium contact rate is up a little as well. As a result, Verlander has already been worth 1.2 wins this season through 39.2 innings pitched in six games — compare that to 2015 and ’14 where the veteran was worth only 2.9 wins.

So how has Verlander defies the odds and started posting higher strikeout rates despite the dip in velocity? It’s because he’s using his slider more and mixing up the location to keep hitters off balance.

Back in the late 2000’s and the early 2010’s, Verlander relied heavily on his fastball and change up — ~63% on the fastball, and ~20% on the changeup — to baffle hitters or just blow right by them. But as he lost velocity on his fastball his changeup became less effective over time so the Cy Young Award winner started to mix in his slider more. Now, in 2018 Verlander’s slider has been 23.4% of all pitches thrown…while his once dominant changeup has only been used 1.8% of the time. As for his fastball, that’s currently been thrown as 63% of his pitches.

While his increased usage of his slider has been important in his reemergence as one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers, he’s also changed up where he’s tossing the ball in the strike zone. Let’s take a look at peak Justin Verlander’s heatmap.

Now let’s compare it to 2018’s.

Back when he had the velocity on his fastball to really distinguish it from his changeup, Verlander feasted on the inside part of the plate to right handed hitters. But as the veteran has lost his speed differential, he’s been forced to keep his pitches away from them so they won’t get demolished.

His changes have been extremely effective so far in 2018, and through the latter of half of ’17 and the post season. If he can keep this up, Verlander could make a credible argument for his second Cy Young Award.

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