Should the Tigers Fear Justin Verlander's Velocity Drop After Record Contract?

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterApril 22, 2013

The Detroit Tigers made Justin Verlander the richest pitcher in baseball history in late March, committing to pay him $180 million over the next seven seasons. 

The Tigers were paying for the elite power pitcher in baseball. Instead, what they've gotten so far in 2013 is a guy who hasn't featured an eye-popping fastball, which is probably not what they had in mind.

But the Tigers shouldn't be worried. Not yet, anyway.

We're having this discussion because of the article that Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports posted on Monday about Verlander's velocity. He noticed something that many others have noticed as well: Verlander, long one of baseball's hardest throwers, isn't throwing so hard this April.

Passan referenced the fact that Baseball Info Solutions, whose data can be found on FanGraphs, has Verlander's average fastball so far this year clocked at 91.9 miles per hour. PITCHf/x data has his average fastball at 92.5 miles per hour. FanGraphs PITCHf/x data has his average heater at 93.2 miles per hour.

The latter two readings are more encouraging than the first, but only to a degree. Verlander has traditionally been a 95-and-up guy, after all, and he's also renowned for his ability to reach back for 100 miles per hour when needed.

That's something else Passan noticed has been missing, as Verlander's fastest pitch this season clocked in at a measly—he said with his tongue firmly in his cheek—97.6 miles per hour.

But now come the reasons not to panic, which start with the fact that Verlander has been pretty darn good in 2013 even without his usual blistering fastball.

Through four starts, Verlander owns a 2.13 ERA and a 198 ERA+. He's holding hitters to a .631 OPS, which isn't too shabby seeing as how he's dealing with an uncharacteristically high .333 BABIP.

The further good news is that Verlander still has the strikeout pitch working. He's struck out 27.9 percent of the batters he's faced, a rate that ranks eighth in baseball among qualified starters, according to FanGraphs.

Verlander's 7.7 walk percentage is slightly alarming, but it's worth noting that the Brooks Baseball data from his first start of the season against the Minnesota Twins shows that both of his walks came on pitches right around the strike zone. So did one of his walks against the Yankees, meaning his walk percentage could be a little lower if he'd gotten a couple close calls.

The further good news is that it's not like Verlander is shying away from his fastball in order to be successful; the Baseball Info Solutions data says Verlander is going to his fastball about 58.1 percent of the time so far this season. For some perspective, he went to his fastball 57 percent of the time in 2011 and 55.9 percent of the time in 2012.

Better yet, Verlander is still getting hitters out with his heater. That's where we turn to Pitch Type Linear Weights, which is another lovely thing you can find on FanGraphs.

So far, Verlander has saved two runs above average with his fastball. Standardized to a "per 100 pitch" basis—abbreviated wFB/C—he's saved 0.79 runs above average with his fastball.

That doesn't rank Verlander among baseball's elites, a group that includes noteworthy fastball merchants like Matt Harvey and Jordan Zimmermann.

However, Verlander's 0.79 wFB/C is pretty good compared to his 0.67 wFB/C from 2012. It's obviously still extremely early, but so far his fastball has been more effective than it was last year when it averaged 94.3 miles per hour, according to Baseball Info Solutions.

And about that 94.3-mph average...

Passan noted that Verlander's fastball averaged 93.8 mph last April, which should indicate to you that he built velocity as the season went along to get to that 94.3-mph average.

This is something I've already looked into. Here's a look at Verlander's velocity progression by month last year, plucked from a recent piece of mine that delved into notable April velocity losses from 2012.

  April May June July August September Final
FB% 56.9 60.5 57.5 56.0 53.1 51.3 55.9
FBv 93.8 94.2 94.0 94.0 94.1 95.4 94.3

The chart shows that Verlander was up over 94 mph with his heater in May and stayed right about there for the next three months. He then kicked it up a notch in the final month of the season, in which he went 5-1 with a 1.93 ERA in six starts to help the Tigers nab a playoff spot.

That's Verlander for you. He paces himself in games, starting slow and ramping things up as he gets deeper and deeper into the proceedings. His velocity splits from last season show that this habit works on a bigger-picture scale too.

So how about this year? Is the same habit already forming? Is Verlander building velocity?

Yes, actually. Using FanGraphs Game Logs, here's a look (with pretty colors!) at Verlander's velocity readings according to both Baseball Info Solutions and PITCHf/x:

Though it's less pronounced in the PITCHf/x stats, you can see Verlander's velocity has been trending upwards over his last three starts. That's a good sign if there ever was one.

The fact that Verlander's velocity is improving suggests that there's nothing physically wrong with him, which is obviously the most important thing. And if there's nothing physically wrong with him, that means his April velocity readings could be a mental thing.

Only Verlander knows for sure whether he's intentionally slowing things down this April, but I don't mind hazarding a guess that that's precisely what's going on.

When Verlander spoke to Passan in March about not wanting to pitch in the World Baseball Classic, he said he didn't want to overexert himself after pitching so many innings (266.2, to be exact) in the regular season and the postseason last year. He also noted that he wasn't feeling quite right when he began throwing early in spring training. He had every reason to play things safe.

Verlander has long seemed invincible, but those comments indicated that he's a guy who knows full well that he is, in fact, quite vincible. He knows he has to be careful with his right arm, and that means not pushing himself any more than he has to.

It stands to reason that Verlander would want to be more careful with his right arm now more than ever. It's only April, after all, and now Verlander knows that he has the richest contract in pitching history to live up to over the next seven years. If he can be successful without cranking his fastball up to the mid 90s, then that's the way to go.

Granted, a Verlander who sits in the low 90s is going to take some getting used to. But as long as the results are there, nobody's going to have any reason to complain.

Not the Tigers. Not the fans. Certainly not Verlander himself.


Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted.


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