Will Justin Verlander's Vintage End to 2015 Mean Big Things in 2016?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 1, 2016

Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander loosens up during a spring training baseball workout, Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Lakeland, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
John Raoux/Associated Press

The Detroit Tigers mean to go places this season, so it sure would help if Justin Verlander pitches like an ace.

With the 33-year-old right-hander mired in a cycle of injuries and ineffectiveness, this would have been an iffy proposition a year ago. But after his finish to 2015, it might not be asking too much going into 2016.

The Tigers have already tabbed Verlander to lead their rotation. Though the club recently opened its wallet to drop $110 million on Jordan Zimmermann, Detroit manager Brad Ausmus decided he wants to start the season with the ol' standby. And as Ausmus indicated to B/R's Scott Miller, he didn't tab Verlander for Opening Day just as a courtesy:

This will be Verlander's eighth Opening Day assignment in nine years, and it positions him for one of those "don't call it a comeback" comeback seasons. And though one can hesitate to buy into the idea, Verlander is at least trending in the right direction.

Both off the mound and on it, Verlander's 2015 campaign started painfully. A right triceps injury delayed his debut until June 13, and he then posted a 6.62 ERA in his first six starts. This came on the heels of a 4.54 ERA in a 2014 preceded by offseason core surgery, so Verlander might have been mere minutes away from men in suits showing up at his door to demand his ace card.

But then, salvation. In his last 14 starts, Verlander pitched to a 2.27 ERA across 99.1 innings. He held batters to a .548 OPS and struck out 91 while walking only 20.

In doing so, Verlander didn't magically transform into the pitcher who used blazing fastballs to carve out a place among baseball's elite hurlers from 2009-12. But lest it cross anyone's mind, that doesn't mean he lucked into such terrific numbers.

Though 14 starts isn't the smallest sample size, it's still small enough the possibility of clusterluck has to be considered. With the right amount of luck, even a pitcher who's getting routinely shelled can trick people into thinking he's Cy Young material.

But it's pretty clear Verlander wasn't skating by on luck at the end of 2015. According to this table full of numbers from FanGraphs, he went from being largely helpless to oddly reminiscent of his 2009-12 self:

Justin Verlander's 2015 Turnaround
First 6 Starts, 20158.
Last 14 Starts, 201510.58.20.516.021.419.9

When Verlander was at his best, he missed plenty of bats (SwStr%) and got plenty of strikeouts (K/9), and it was no accident he was so good at keeping the ball in the yard (HR/9). He was among the best at collecting pop-ups (IFFB%) and limiting loud contact (Soft% and Hard%).

Early in 2015, Verlander could do none of these things. But later in 2015, he did them as well or better than he did in his prime. He even limited his walks, posting a rock-solid rate of 1.8 bases on balls per nine innings.

What stood out during this stretch was how Verlander used his four-seam fastball. He started going to the heat about 60 percent of the time—something he hadn't done since 2010. And with an assist from Baseball Savant, we see that he also went back to heavily favoring the high fastball:

Note: This is a percentage of how many of Verlander's fastballs were high fastballs, not how many of his overall pitches were high fastballs.

And it worked. Verlander held hitters to a .109 average on high heat, which helped drop the overall average against his fastball from .324 in his first six starts to .200 in his last 14 starts. All the high heat may have also made it harder for hitters to adjust to his curveball, slider and changeup, as they went from hitting .254 against those pitches to .213.

What could help explain the high heat is that, as he told Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press in October, Verlander learned to get "a little bit more in-depth" with statistical analysis and scouting reports. As pitchers have trended toward hitting the bottom of the zone, major league hitters have lost their knack for hitting high heat. While the league average against high heat was .250 in 2008, it was just .231 last year. For any pitcher who knows it, that's practically an open invitation to throw more high fastballs.

Of course, it also helps that these fastballs were aided by more than just their locations.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

The reason we can't say Verlander magically transformed into his old self is because he wasn't blowing gas by hitters on a pitch-to-pitch basis. He averaged 92.8 mph in his first six starts of 2015 and 92.8 mph in his last 14 starts. He's still a long way from his 2009 peak of 95.6 mph.

And yet, Verlander regained his unique ability to throw harder as games moved along. Brooks Baseball can show this talent abandoned him in 2014 and then came back in 2015. Never was that clearer than when he blew a 98 mph fastball by Geovany Soto on his 112th pitch of a late September start.

Beyond that, Verlander's fastball also showed more life than it had in 2014.

"What we noticed after he came back from the injury last year is that his fastball had jump at the end," former Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones told Katie Strang of ESPN.com last month. "But that's what we had seen back when he was healthy in previous years. His fastballs would jump on a hitter. That's a great thing."

Jones' eyes did not deceive him, as Mike Petriello of MLB.com noted Verlander's four-seamer had the highest spin rate among starting pitchers. That's a good thing, as spin rate equals late movement, which can mean the difference between a home run and a whiff or a pop-up.

That whole thing with the high fastballs? That's clearly Verlander using his head. But extra late-inning velocity and elite life on his fastball? That's clearly him using his health.

As Fenech wrote, former teammate Torii Hunter told Verlander it would take him a year to fully recover from the core muscle surgery he had in January 2014. That would mean he pitched the 2014 season without a 100 percent healthy lower half, which could explain why his arm broke down before 2015 even started.

But at some point last season, Verlander finally felt better.

"I started throwing, and I expected it to hurt like it has the last few years, and all of a sudden, it feels good," Verlander said in January, per Shawn Windsor of the Free Press. "I'll go out and play long toss, and the next day I start throwing, and the next thing you know, I'll start long-tossing again, and it feels good. And I'm like, 'OK, this is what it used to feel like—fun.'"

This is where you'd expect to be able to see the difference in plain sight. To that end, the credit goes to Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs for spotting it in Verlander's follow-through. After looking stiff early in 2015, Verlander was looser toward the end of the year.

While all of this would seem to bode well going into 2016, let's hold our horses by acknowledging the projections aren't quite as convincing. At Baseball Prospectus, PECOTA has Verlander posting a 3.97 ERA. At FanGraphs, Steamer and ZiPS also have Verlander with an ERA in the high 3.00s. And according to all three, he's probably not crossing the 200-inning threshold in 2016.

One doesn't necessarily need to have a computer for a brain to admit there's merit to these doubts. As well as Verlander pitched down the stretch in 2015, his 33 years put him smack in post-prime territory. And given all he's gone through, it can't be taken for granted that his good health is actually going to last.

But while there's no ignoring the doubts completely, there's also no ignoring Verlander is entering the 2016 season with more causes for optimism than he's had in years.

Physically, this is the first time he would start a season healthy since 2013. And stuff-wise, he showed through a mix of movement, location and extra gas when he needed it that his ability to dominate isn't necessarily tied to his average fastball velocity.

This all resulted in Verlander pitching like, well, vintage Verlander. If he keeps it up, the Tigers should get more of the same in 2016.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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