Monday, April 26, 2010

Is It Time For Panic With Justin Verlander?

A couple days ago here at Central In Focus we looked at the performance of Jake Peavy and asked if there was something wrong with the pitcher beyond bad luck and determined that indeed there probably was. Today we'll be doing the same thing with Tigers ace Justin Verlander.

Justin is coming off the most dominant year of his sterling career and the Tigers are relying on his right handed power arm to help carry them to an AL Central title. 2009 saw Verlander post career highs in innings pitched (240.0), K/9 (10.09), BB/9 (2.36).

The only negative trend is essentially an extenuation of one that had been going on for a few years - an increased fly ball rate, to 42.8%. That rate has risen each year he's been in the league since 2005. But the career worst fly ball rate last year didn't seem to affect him too much as he posted a career best HR rate.

However after such a strong season in 2009, one that saw him garner considerable interest for the American League CY Young Award, the beginning of his 2010 season couldn't have begun much worse. His numbers are down across the board and some of the Detroit faithful are beginning to grouse.

Let's take a look at some of the numbers. The combination of his 7.77K/9, 3.68BB/9, and 1.28HR/9 are good for an FIP of 4.30. That seems about right to me. But with an ERA of 6.95 it should be of particular condolence for Tigers fans. Verlander certainly hasn't been great in 2010, but he hasn't been nearly as bad as his ERA would indicate. But why?

Typically when looking at outlier statistics, they can be explained away by BABIP. Extreme BABIP's one way or another are a fantastic indicator of regression to the mean. While Verlander's BABIP of .328 is above his career average of .307, it's identical to the one he posted in 2009, and by no means a significant outlier. What strikes me as a bit odd about the BABIP number is that, given his fly ball tendencies, those numbers tend to come down. I'd expect he's been a bit unlucky as a few more hits have fallen in than perhaps normal. Not a huge deal, but worth noting.

Statistically, the big outlier that jumps out to me is his left on base percentage (LOB%) of 55.6% this season. Verlander's career LOB% is right in line with Major League average at 71.8% of runners stranded on base. But with Verlander allowing almost half of all runners he's allowed on base to score, it's taken a significant toll on his ERA. That simply wont continue, and as that evens out, his ERA will come down.

However, the BABIP and to a greater extent, the LOB% don't tell us why the true indicators of pitching talent - the K%, BB%, and GB% are all trending negative. To determine why he's been less effective, we should look at his PitchFX data to see what sort of information we can glean.

First the pitch Data: (Type: 2009 %-Velocity / 2010 %-Velocity)

4-Seam: 67.5%-95.6mph / 53.6%-95.5mph
2-Seam: 0.2%-89.3mph / 9.2%-94.7mph
Slider: 2.9%-86.6mph / 4.8%-87.6mph
Curve: 19.4%-80.1mph / 17.9%-80.8mph
Change: 10.1%-84.2mph / 14.5%-85.2mph

There are some pretty noticeable difference here, and I highlighted the ones that seemed most relevant to me. The biggest standout is that 2010 Verlander is throwing a lot fewer four seam fastballs (but not many fewer fastballs overall). That is perhaps in an attempt to generate more ground balls as his home run rate continues to climb. The problem is that he simply isn't getting much depth of his two seam fastballs, something we'll examine a bit later.

There are also small changes that could be explained due to sample size as much as a change in pitching style. Increases in the amount of change ups thrown, and a decease in the number of curve balls. But again, the difference is small enough that one has to question it's relevance. Still, it's worth noting.

Like we did with Peavy, we'll put the charts from 2009 against the charts from 2010 so we can compare them side-by-side.

Ironically if there are any differences in lateral movement, it's slightly better in 2010 with his slider and change up both improving their fade.

Again, very subtle differences that actually favor his 2010 performance. The one area of concern is the two-seam fastball. He's throwing it quite a bit more in 2010 than he did in 2009, and while it has improved marginally in lateral movement, it simply isn't getting enough depth to induce more ground balls, and perhaps (pure speculation on my part) it's proving a somewhat easier pitch to hit.

Again, everything looks to be within the same range and 2009.

So why is Verlander struggling so much more? It appears to be mostly bad luck and a regression to his career norms. Verlander prior to 2009 was a very good pitcher, posting a career FIP of 4.19 and a career xFIP of 3.80.

Both above average marks.

He also sported above average career K/9 rates and BB/9 rates as well as solid HR/9 rates.

In short Justin Verlander throughout his career had been pretty darn good. Just not amazing, until last year. Viewed in context of his career marks, there is very little wrong with his performance in 2010. His strikeout and walk rates are off a little bit. His FB rate continues to increase, and his BABIP is a bit high. But it appears that most of his struggles have simply come by an inordinately large number of base runners coming around to score.

As with all things regression related, that will even out.

Tigers fans were spoiled last year when they got to watch Justin Verlander consistently mowing down opponents, and based on pure stuff, there is little to suggest that his talent has diminished. Verlander still has all the tools.

There will be two things that will determine whether or not Justin Verlander will regain his form in 2009.

1) His command. As you can see by the charts and data, the pure stuff hasn't diminished at all. If anything, it may be a tick better. But if he can't pound the zone the way he did in 2009, he wont give hitters the same incentive to swing. As a result he wont strike out as many, nor get as deep into games.

2) Regaining some of his ground ball capabilities. Verlander doesn't have a standout outfield defense to work with, and as he becomes more and more fly-ball prone, more and more of those balls will begin falling in for hits. He needs to find ways to induce more ground balls and gives his standout left-side infield defense a chance to convert more outs for him.

Justin Verlander isn't done for. He just might be more like the guy he's been throughout the rest of his career than he was in 2009, and that's not an entirely bad thing. I think it's safe to say that Tigers fans can lower their anxiety level.

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