What’s up with Verlander in the stretch?

by billfer on April 26, 2009 · 19 comments

in 2009 Season,Pitching,Players,Research

Justin Verlander has gotten off to a rough start in 2009. People are starting to question his “ace-hood” and with an ERA of 9.00 after 4 starts it is probably justified. What makes his start so perplexing is that his “stuff” appears to be back. His fastball velocity is over 95mph and he’s fanning 10.7 batters per 9 innings. The numbers that really need a deeper examination though are those when runners are on base. Verlander is stranding only 39.6% of runners (a normal rate is 65-75%) and hitters post a 457 OBP with men on and only 296 with the bases empty. What’s up with that?

Stuff and Selection

The disparity made me wonder if there was something mechanical that changed when Verlander went into the stretch. Did he have a harder time finding the zone, was his stuff not as good, less break, less velocity? I took a look at the pitch f/x data for his first 4 games looked at stretch and wind-up situations. The pitch mix, velocity, and horizontal and vertical movement for his pitches in both scenarios are displayed below.

Stretch Wind-Up
% Pitches In Zone 47.7% 46.5%
% Strikes 62.5% 66.7%
% Fastballs 60.8% 75.3%
FB Velocity 96.0 94.9
FB V Move 10.89 10.94
FB H Move -7.77 -7.99
% Curve 26.7% 18.9%
CU Velocity 81.5 80.6
CU V Move -4.45 -5.72
CU H Move 4.41 5.03
% Change 9.7% 5.2%
CH Velocity 83.4 84.2
CH V Move 8.47 7.41
CH H Move -9.66 -9.57

Verlander actually throws his fastball harder from the stretch adding a full mile per hour. The extra speed on the heater doesn’t hurt his movement at all (those are inches, so a couple tenths of an inch is insignificant.

He throws his curve ball harder in those situations also, and in this case he actually is sacrificing movement. He gets over an inch less drop on his breaking ball. With his change-up he throws it a little harder with a wind-up, but still gets more sink with the extra mile per hour making me wonder if he slows his arm more with the change-up from the stretch.

But the bigger differences aren’t in the pitch path to the plate, but the selection. Verlander throws his fastball 75% of the time with the bases empty, but he starts throwing his curve and change much more with runners on base. The fastball is Verlander’s best pitch, his signature pitch, but he goes away from it when he gets in trouble.

Strike Throwing and Command

In terms of control, he actually throws pitches in the strike zone at a better rate from the stretch. But his rate of strikes is markedly lower. The table below is a break down of his strikes by type of strike.

Stretch Wind-Up
Called 24% 31%
Foul 31% 25%
Swinging 15% 21%
In Play 31% 23%

Verlander doesn’t get swinging strikes or called strikes at the same rate when pitching with men on. A deeper look reveals that from the wind-up, 24 of the 28 swinging strikes that Verlander has  earned this year have come on the fastball. With runners on base, he goes away from the pitch and only had 16 swinging strikes with runners on and only 7 came on the fastball.

Release Point

One last thing I wanted to look at was release point. Does something change that makes Verlander more or less deceptive? Below is the ball’s location at 50 feet from the front of home plate.

image

At least at the 50 foot mark things are pretty consistent between the two deliveries. There is a cluster of pitches off to the right and a little lower than the main grouping. That cluster occurred in the first 3 innings of the Blue Jays game. I don’t know if his delivery changed that much or if it was a calibration issue. At the very least I think that this portion can be deemed inconclusive.

Based on this pretty limited study it doesn’t appear that being in the stretch itself disrupts Verlander too much. His curve and change-up are altered slightly, but being a geek instead of a ballplayer I don’t know how much those changes in movement effect results. What I can see though is that he becomes much more reliant on those pitches in that situation. So if the pitches are less effective from the stretch, by throwing them more he doesn’t help his chances.

 
 

{ 19 comments }

Eric Cioe April 26, 2009 at 9:28 pm

I can hear it already: “What? No, that’s all wrong. His head is wrong. That’s all. Million dollar pitcher with a ten cent head.”

Dylan April 26, 2009 at 10:10 pm

This might be a stretch but I think that this kind of goes along with the idea that he gets too rushed/nervous and there’s something going on in his head.

He’s throwing his fastball a mile per hour faster because he’s more amped up/rushing.

Maybe this is stretching it but I remember when he threw his no-no he was hitting 100 on the gun despite being in the 9th inning. Seems like he always has the ability to let it rip but maybe he’s overthrowing or something?

Maybe I’m just crazy and that’s why I blog about basketball…

David April 26, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Bonderman syndrome oh wait…

I think he has had trouble adjusting the 2nd or 3rd time through the order. And his command (at times) has been terrible.

Thankfully when I’ve watched him he still has had a nice tight and sharp break on his curve, and like you said his 100mph fastball. He needs to locate better and mix his locations more. Ie inside, outside, inside, inside, outside. Vs – over the plate, over the plate and belt high, outside.

Guys can hit his fastball if he leaves it in a hittable place (which he has done), or he doesn’t mix it effectively.

Jason in Indiana April 26, 2009 at 11:09 pm

Good analysis. Obviously the numbers are inconclusive as you’ve shown. However, I would still caution against drawing any conclusions as it is an awfully small sample size, particularly the pitches thrown from the stretch.

But if the overall trend continues to show a differential in results (but not in pitch selection, accuracy, movement, etc) between the windup and the stretch there may be another, simpler rationale: Maybe Verlander and/or the catcher du jour is tipping pitches to the runners on base. This could be stealing signs by a runner on second or some kind of tip which Verlander exhibits in the stretch but not in the windup. A larger sample size can help to bear this out, especially if the numbers show a marked jump with a runner on second. Just a thought, and thanks again for the great analysis.

Kevin in Austin (now Dallas) April 26, 2009 at 11:32 pm

Great work billfer, this is why I tune in here every day.

Small sample size, he’ll be fine tomorrow. I’m looking forward to taking a series from the Yanks.

Coleman April 27, 2009 at 12:55 am

@K.I.A: I suggest they take the field in their “special throwback” jerseys (nudge nudge) that happen to be very similar to Red Sox jerseys…we’ll sweep.

Mike R April 27, 2009 at 1:31 am

I guess the next step would be to look at his 2007 and 2008 seasons from the stretch vs. windup (well, maybe not 2008 since he was probably terrible in the stretch, windup, underhand, overhand, rolling the ball like he’s bowling or kicking it like Pele).

jud April 27, 2009 at 1:51 am

location ….location….location
Most pitches that are getting hit are in the middle or close to the middle of the plate. He hangs that curve/slider a lot. His fastball is very very straight and he either misses by a lot or gets too much plate. I do not believe he can pitch inside for a strike. All his inside pitches are easy to read because they are balls.

Big league hitters don’t need anymore information than that.

amason April 27, 2009 at 2:37 am

He has a good FIP at 4.10 and the highest era-fip differential in the majors and his BABIP is third highest at .412 according to fangraphs. He seems really unlucky and the victim of some poor defense and this analysis(which is great by the way) suggests to me there isn’t much of a problem as far as stretch vs. wind-up. Anyways I don’t much about this stuff, which is the reason I let fangraphs et al tell me what to think, but I am encouraged by the high K’s and relatively low walk totals so far.

Coleman April 27, 2009 at 2:47 am

One way the small sample size be a problem is the imbalance of when and where he was pitched so far. Over his career he has done much better in day than in night games, and at first glance he doesn’t seem to do well in general on the west coast.
So far 3 of 4 of his starts have been night games (in LA, Seattle, and Toronto). His one day start (TX) he only gave up 1 run on 2 hits, with 4BB and 8K.

The day/night difference isn’t huge, but maybe something else to keep an eye on (who knows, maybe he just gets tired at night or something?).

Coleman April 27, 2009 at 3:43 am

amason: He could be the victim of bad defense, somewhat…or it could be that the Balls In Play happen to be screaming line drives and long flies into the gaps, which the stats seem to indicate is more likely. (Note: I’m looking at BABIP since that’s what caught your attention but that’s not to say he’s not the victim of bad defense outside of BABIP numbers).

If you look at the BIP vs Verlander by hit type, you find Groundball/Flyball/LineDrive ratios of 30%/44%/25%. The overall league avg breakdown is 43-38-18 and the Tiger pitcher avg is similar, 46-35-18, as is Verlander’s own career avg of 41-38-20. So right away you can see his pitches are coming back airborne at a rate much higher than most pitchers.

If you break down his BABIP by these 3 categories you get .211/.310/.813 vs AL avg .238/.233/.750 and DET avg .232/.171/.671. So it may be that he has been unlucky or a victim of fielding to a small degree on fly balls and line drives (although he latter seems unlikely since DET is better than avg on both accounts), and it appears he has actually been lucky/benefitting from the fielding of his ground balls.

But what really stands out is how much the line drive ratio is going to affect the total BABIP, since the BA for line drives is going to be around .500 higher. And that is why Verlander’s BABIP is so relatively high.

Mark in Chicago April 27, 2009 at 9:01 am

the 39.6% LOB rate is ridiculously unsustainable. You can count on that regressing to the mean. He’s also got a .412 BABIP, a likewise ridiculous number that should improve as the season goes on.

His peripherals are very good, evidenced by the K rate and FIP. His BB/9 is about the same as last year, but it’s not disturbingly high. Verlander is pitching fine, he’s been pretty unlucky through a small sample size of innings pitched. However, it would be nice to see him get a win vs. the yankees and that monkey off his back.

Russ April 27, 2009 at 9:17 am

I’m still going with him being injured and not telling anyone. I called the Rogers injury a year or two ago when I saw him pitching in Seattle. So, I’m thinking going .500 ain’t so bad if I’m wrong.

All it takes to off-set the pitching (or batting) is one little iritation–heck, could be a blister that he thinks isn’t an issue.

Chauncey April 27, 2009 at 9:40 am

Great numbers Billfer- what I was thinking part of Verlander’s problem has been is that he gets behind in the count too often, but from what the numbers show, he’s throwing about 2/3 of his pitches for strikes. Maybe its a simple case of not throwing his fastball enough with runners on base, but who knows? The other problem Verlander does seem to have is the defense behind him seems horrid. Just look at his last game with Rayburn butchering a few plays in right. Doesn’t mean that Verlander was great, but I would guess that 3 or 4 of the runs that Verlander gave up could have easily been unearned. And thats just the last start.

Mark J in DC April 27, 2009 at 10:30 am

The takeaway seems to be that he’s not using his most effective pitch as often when he needs to pitch most effectively. He may be throwing the curve more to get people to ground into double plays, but with less movement on it from the stretch, instead of getting groundouts he’s getting hit more often.

RPS April 27, 2009 at 11:20 am

One related thing I’m curious about and don’t really know where to find:

Is there a difference in JV’s strike/ball/foul/in play 1st pitch percentages with and without runners on? It seems like when he gets in trouble, he goes 1-0 on every hitter. The difference between starting 1-0 and 0-1 could explain a good deal about his outlier ‘luck’ stats.

Nick April 27, 2009 at 12:16 pm

This is a terrific article. Great work.

Adrian from Toronto April 27, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Humberto Sanchez was released by NYY

We should re-pick him up and help him get back to where he was.

Joel in Seattle April 27, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Maybe he needs to just trust the game that Laird’s calling and quit shaking off so many pitches… Seems to be working for the other guys.

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