Complete Hitter's Guide to Solving Justin Verlander's Nastiness

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Complete Hitter's Guide to Solving Justin Verlander's Nastiness
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
If you're up against Justin Verlander in this situation, what do you do? Besides run and hide.

Our mission, should we choose to accept it—which we wouldn't, but it was assigned, so we kinda have to—is to solve Justin Verlander.

Mission? Impossible.

But let's at least try to find out how a hitter should go about facing the game's premier pitcher, who at age 30, is still in the middle of his prime and coming off the best two seasons of his career—so far.

 

Have an Approach

Last week, in talking about facing Mets flamethrower Matt Harvey, who's first in the National League with a .122 batting average against, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman explained that a hitter's approach is similar against most power pitchers, whether it's Harvey or Zimmerman's teammate Stephen Strasburg.

Or Verlander, of course.

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Ryan Zimmerman hit a home run off Matt Harvey last Sept. 12.

"You have to go up there with a plan," said Zimmerman, who is one of only seven hitters to take Harvey deep but is hitless in three at-bats against Verlander with two whiffs. "You have to do your best to swing at strikes, don't do them any favors by expanding the zone. Make them work and get that pitch count up by the fifth or sixth inning."

As for focusing on a specific pitch against a power arm, Zimmerman (currently on the disabled list with a hamstring injury) told me simply, "You have to be ready for the fastball at all times. You always have to honor that pitch."

That all sounds well and good, but does that approach work against Verlander?

 

Focus on Verlander's Fastball...

Let's take Zimmerman's last point first: Be ready for the heater.

Verlander's fastball comes in at nearly 95 miles per hour (94.8, if you want to be exact), according to the PITCHf/x data from FanGraphs. That's on average, by the way.

How do hitters do against Verlander's four-seamer? Well, they own a .256 average, for starters. That's actually not half bad, right? Especially when you consider that for his career, Verlander's batting average against sits at a microscopic .230, per FanGraphs.

Clearly, then, he's getting outs at a higher rate with his secondary offerings. Again, the PITCHf/x numbers at FanGraphs back this up: Verlander's batting averages against (BAA) on his curveball (.158), slider (.203) and changeup (.217) are all much lower than that .256 against his fastball.

Here's how it looks in table form, where the green shading indicates a better batting average against, orange shading indicates a low batting average against and red shading indicates, well, basically no chance:

Conclusion? The fastball is the pitch a hitter needs to attack if he wants a fighting chance.

 

...But Be Aware of His Entire Repertoire

Now that we know Verlander's heater can be hit, at least compared to his other offerings, let's figure out how often he uses it.

Going by FanGraphs PITCHf/x pitch types, we see that Verlander throws some form of his fastball (either the four- or two-seamer) about 58 percent of the time in his career. Over the past few seasons, however, Verlander's fastball usage has dropped from about 67 percent in 2009 to about 50 percent last year.

Why? Well for one, maybe Verlander has realized that his heater, as high-octane as it is, isn't quite as effective as pitches that throw off a hitter's timing or change a batter's eye level.

To that end, he's used his slider more often, up from about three percent in 2009 to 12 percent in 2012. Same goes for his changeup, which he threw 22 percent of the time last year, up from 10 percent in 2009.

Here's a graph to make the nastiness look pretty with colors:

Basically, Verlander has been using more pitches, more often. No wonder he's been at his best the past two years, huh?

Also? We see now why the point is to try to focus on just one pitch—the fastball—because if the batter is guessing along with Verlander, who has four above-average-to-plus offerings to choose from, something like this is going to happen:

Five of the 12 Ks Verlander racked up against the M's on April 18 came on his fastball, and he got at least one whiff with each of his three offspeed pitches. (Video courtesy of MLB's official YouTube account)

 

Know When to Expect the Heat

Beyond just figuring out how often Verlander uses good old No. 1, we also need to figure out when over the course of an at-bat he's apt to do so. Does he bring the heat early and use the soft stuff late? Or does he like to pick up punch-outs with his power?

For this, we'll turn to the PITCHf/x data provided at BrooksBaseball.net and Baseball Prospectus. This handy tool allows us to break down pitch types by count, which is just what we need.

(Feel free to follow along at home by clicking on the drop-down boxes with "balls" and "strikes.")

At the start of a plate appearance, Verlander's pitch use percentages and the resulting batter triple-slash statistics (batting average/on base percentage/slugging percentage) from Baseball Reference look like this: 

So Verlander likes to throw his fastball right off the bat nearly three-quarters of the time, which means a hitter should go up looking dead red right away.

That's exactly what happened when Kyle Seager stepped in to face Verlander—as a pinch-hitter, no less—on April 18.

Kyle Seager's game-winning double against Verlander on April 18. (Video courtesy of MLB's official YouTube account)

Seager's two-out RBI double on a first-pitch fastball from Verlander broke a scoreless tie in the seventh inning and proved to be the game-winning hit, as the Mariners went on to win, 2-0.

 

Verlander Ahead in the Count

Now, what about when the count goes to 0-1?

If Verlander gets the hitter 0-2, it looks like this:

And 1-2 is basically just as deadly:

Essentially, when Verlander is able to get ahead, which he usually does by throwing a fastball, he'll then shift gears to throwing his offspeed stuff. And when he gets two strikes, he busts out the curveball, slider or change and, well, so long, Charlie.

 

Verlander Behind in the Count

But...what happens when Verlander falls behind? Here's what he throws on 1-0:

This is the breakdown on 2-0:

And here's 2-1:

Finally, this is what Verlander's approach and the hitter's results look like when he's down 3-1 in the count:

As we surmised above, if a hitter can get ahead in the count against Verlander, just like against any pitcher, the chances of getting a fastball—the pitch we're looking for—increase dramatically, and so do the chances of getting a base hit or getting on base.

Here's an example from Verlander's April 7 outing when he fell behind the Yankees' Francisco Cervelli, who laced an RBI double on a 1-0 fastball.

Francisco Cervelli's RBI double on a 1-0 fastball. (Video courtesy of MLB's official YouTube account)

 

Verlander and the 1st-Pitch Strike

Of course, Verlander knows this, which is why he does a good job of getting ahead of hitters. He throws a first-pitch strike to 60 percent of hitters, per FanGraphs. More to the point, Verlander flipped the switch on this aspect of his pitching after 2008—his worst season.

From 2009 on, his first-pitch strike percentage has consistently been about 61 to 62 percent, whereas he spent 2006 through 2008 toiling in the 58 percent range.

 

The Pitch-Count Factor

As Zimmerman mentioned above, one of the goals a hitter should have against an elite arm is to make the pitcher work and drive up his pitch count.

This works against Verlander to an extent.

According to Baseball Reference, which breaks pitch numbers down into 25-pitch segments, Verlander struggles the most from pitches 76-100: Batters post a triple-slash line of .246/.305/.387 in that stretch. This is most likely because, in addition to any fatigue Verlander is fighting, hitters are seeing him for the third time and have made some adjustments.

So the approach Zimmerman described above—look for a fastball, don't expand the zone and make the pitcher work—does check out when facing Verlander.

That doesn't mean it's not still incredibly tough to "solve" Justin Verlander.

"When power pitchers are executing their pitches," Zimmerman told me, "and they're throwing what they want and putting it where they want, it's tough to get hits."

You might even say it's a mission that's nearly impossible.

 

*All statistics come from Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus as indicated.

*Note: PITCHf/x data is available going back to 2007.

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