Last year, Verlander was the talk of Detroit. But, it was for all of the wrong reasons. He ended the season with a 4.84 ERA, 17 losses and the most walks issued in his 3 year career. He had gone from the No-hitter and All Star golden boy to the fans whipping boy. Of course, those who looked at his peripheral numbers (like his 4.18 FIP) would have noticed that his numbers did not defer much from the season he had in 2006 when he was the talk of baseball, and won rookie of the year. Alas, more was expected of Verlander last year and he failed to deliver.
Flash forward to this season, though, and everything is turning up aces (pun intended). Verlander has the 4th best FIP in MLB at 2.71, the 2nd best K/9 ratio, 11th best K/BB, 10th best tRA, 7th best WPA, and his 5.1 WAR (maybe my favorite stat) is 4th best in the game. Basically, by nearly every advanced measure, Verlander has turned into a legit shutdown ace this season. He is without question one of the top 10 pitchers in the game and has been in the top 5 this season in the AL with the likes of Greinke, Halladay, Josh Beckett and Felix Hernandez.
So, what has changed? Before this season, Verlander's career best FIP was 3.99 in 2007. That is generally reserved for good #2 starters (Edwin Jackson, for example, has a FIP of 3.89). Now, he has the 4th best FIP in the game. What caused such a resurgence? For one, Chuck Hernandez is gone. The days of trying to adjust Verlander's arm slot appears to be over and he seems to work well under new pitching coach, Rick Knapp. Knapp came to Detroit from the Minnesota Twins organization which prides itself on throwing strikes. That hardly seems like a revolutionary concept but considering that the Tigers had the 4th worst BB/9 ratio in MLB last year, then it became a much needed philosophy. At the time of the hire, it seemed like a perfect fit. Take a guy from an organization who rarely walks batters (lowest BB/9 ratio in MLB last year) and put him with flamethrowers who can strike out and walk the park. Then, with a little magic, the hope was that Knapp's influence would keep the K rates the same (or even better) and drastically cut down on the walks. If nothing else, the hire has been a match made in Heaven for Verlander. He has dropped his BB/9 ratio from 3.90 last season to 2.66 this season. Meanwhile, he has upped his K/9 ratio from 7.30 to 10.65. All told, his K/BB ratio has improved from 1.87 ( 64th last year among 88 qualified starters) to 4.00 this season.
Ok, so he has struck out more and walked less. He also has not had a pitching coach attempt to change the mechanics or arm slot angle of that golden arm of his. Surely, that cannot be it. And, it isn't. Last season, Verlander threw his fastball at an average of 93.6 MPH. This season, he has wowed the ladies with a fastball that averages 95.5 MPH. That 2 MPH increase in velocity and improved movement and location has led to a fastball that has saved 17.8 runs this season, according to Fan Graphs. Of the qualified pitchers, Verlander's fastball has been the 4th best fastball in MLB this season. In comparison, last year, Verlander had a fastball that saved just 0.4 runs.
Another change with Verlander has been the difference in his pitch selection compared to last season and his career norms. Verlander was always a plus curveball pitcher and it has been his second best pitch over his career. This year, he is throwing his curveball and fastball more than at any other point in his career. On the other hand, he is throwing his changeup just 8.5% of the time this season. That is a far cry from the changeup he elected to throw nearly 16 % of the time last season. In addition to that, Verlander is also throwing his slider now more than he ever has before. It is still nowhere near a plus pitch but the experimenting with a 4th pitch, an increased reliance on his deadly fastball and curveball and a reduced reliance on his changeup might be one of the telling points in his comeback season.
Looking at the plate discipline stats for the batters that Verlander has faced, the improvement he has made this season is even more telling. For one, batters are swinging at 27.8% of pitches outside the stike zone. That is a 3% increase from last season. Also, batters are swining at his pitches inside the strike zone less so than they have at any other point in his career. Thus, the ensuing stats are not surprising. A batters O-Contact % against Verlander (percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches thrown outside the strike zone) is down a full 10 % from last season. Batters are connecting on just 56% of those pitches. The opposing batters are also hitting pitches inside the strike zone less so then at any other point in Verlander's career. From Verlander's perspective, he is throwing 55.5 % of his pitches for strikes (just 50% last year), and his first strike % of 63.1 is a 5% increase of his total last year.
In summary, Verlander is/has ...
- Striking more guys out
- Walking fewer batters
- Increased the velocity on his fastball by 2 MPH
- Improved the location, command and movement on his fastball
- Relied more heavily on his fastball and curveball while throwing half as many changeups
- Throwing more strikes within the zone that batters are not swinging at
- Inducing the most swing and misses of pitches outside of the strike zone of his career by a substantial margin.
- Not being coached by Chuck Hernandez
- Being guided by Rick Knapp
All together, it accounts for the numbers that bear repeating: Verlander has the 4th best FIP in MLB at 2.71, the 2nd best K/9 ratio, 11th best K/BB, 10th best tRA, 7th best WPA, and the 4th best WAR. He has turned himself into maybe the rarest thing in baseball... a true, shutdown ace. Now, as fans, all we can do is sit back and enjoy the pleasure that is watching him pitch. The scary thing? He's only 26 and has another decade of terrorizing hitters left in him. Good luck, American League hitters.