Reading Between The Seams: Hall Of Fame Hunger (Part 5 of 6)

  1. Part 1: The Baseball, Justin Verlander, and Denial (3/2/18)
  2. Part 2: The Ghost Of Ground Chuck (3/5/18)
  3. Part 3: Lance Lets It All Eat (3/6/18)
  4. Part 4: Keuchelangelo’s Swan Song (3/7/18)
  5. Part 5: Hall Of Fame Hunger (3/8/18)
  6. Part 6: The Cole Train’s Tracks (3/9/18)

Leading Off

Justin Verlander’s name has been synonymous with “Legendary Ace” in baseball parlance for more than a decade now, but there have more recently been some questions popping up with regard to his decline phase over his last couple of seasons in Detroit. After a truly egregious snubbing in 2016 by the Baseball Writers of America (Rick Porcello won the Cy Young Award instead of Verlander, which was roughly equivalent to Juan Gonzalez winning the MVP award in the late 90s and prompted a fiery twitter rebuke from one Mrs. Kate Upton) Verlander went back to work in 2017 and disappointed on a bad Tigers team by posting his worst BB/9 mark (3.51), worst FIP (3.84), and worst xFIP (4.41) since 2008. He was in the news by July as frequently for his concerns about rediscovering his change up as he was about vociferously ignoring the trade rumors that surrounded him.

Then, the August 31st trade to Houston happened, and everything changed for him. He rediscovered his change up, he re-tooled his slider with help from the state of the art facilities and tools in Houston, he cut his BB/9 down to 1.32 in Houston with a 2.69 FIP and a 2.94 xFIP, and his K/9 mark skyrocketed up to 11.38 K/9 once he moved to the Bayou City. That trade culminated, as all Astros fans know but love being reminded of, in the first World Series in franchise history…and also the first World Championship in Verlander’s career, despite coming close before.

With an eye on the future even in the aftermath of yet another long-sought career achievement, newly-minted World Series Champion Justin Verlander surely must have pondered what peak he can master next. After all, look at what he’s already done.

Become one of the most dominant right-handed starting pitchers of his generation?

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers

Check.

Win Cy Young awards? Win an MVP award?

verlander hardware

Check.

Win a World Series?

verlander trophy.jpg

Check.

Get the girl?

verlander wedding

Check.

For good measure, he’s even made out like a bandit in the automobile department:

Basically, if you thought Justin Verlander leads a charmed life, it would appear that you might be right. His life looks like it rocks.

The thing about people who are driven to such dizzying heights of personal accomplishment, however, is that no matter how much they enjoy the ride and how grateful and humble they stay – and make no mistake, Justin Verlander is as obviously-grateful and publicly humble as a man of his stature and with his resume can be – they are always driven to be better; to do more; to move on from the past (no matter how great and fulfilling it is) and conquer the next peak. To slay the next dragon.

But what’s next for the 34-year-old hurler? What do you get the Hall Of Fame-trajectoried starter who has everything?

Well, how about another ring or two and some more mantle hardware, for starters?

The Arsenal

One thing about breaking down the arsenal of one of the most successful, dominant pitchers of his generation in today’s world is that there is a cornucopia of informative data to choose from; a veritable treasure trove of gif and charts and graphs and videos and think pieces are dedicated to him, and they litter the digital baseballscape like intelligentsia landmines.

A brief acknowledgement of Rob Friedman is appropriate here, as his tweets with gifs and video clips and the like feature prominently below. His is a seminal Twitter follow that I highly recommend…in fact, I recommend it enough to go to this point in order to suggest you follow him:

Justin Verlander has a dizzying array of devastating pitches. At any given moment, on any given fifth day, he can summon the apocalyptic demons of hell to do his bidding, visiting destruction upon his foes in manners such as this:

He does this in ways that appear intuitive and not at all uncommon, but something in the explosion of his stuff upon the hitters is different; special, and it sets him apart from the pack. His fastball averages just over 95 miles per hour these days – according to Pitcher List it was 95.6 in 2017, to be precise, which is exactly the same mark he posted in 2011 when he won both the American League Cy Young Award and the American League Most Valuable Player Award. Additionally, it is a pitch which features an extremely high spin rate – one of the fastest-spinning fastballs in the game, occasionally as high as 2,500 RPM – which lends itself very well to missing bats and weak pop up contact. Here’s a look at a decent sampling of his fastball as provided by the indelible PitcherList.com:

The thing that has really made his fastball special (beyond all of the other aforementioned facts) is that he can reach back for extra velocity and movement as he needs to, even late into the game, adding to the similarities between himself and his childhood pitching hero, Nolan Ryan:

In addition, Verlander has been able to use his extremely high spin rate to his advantage by successfully living at the top of the strike zone with the pitch, increasing its efficacy significantly:

The fastball is a pitch that Verlander threw over 57% of the time in 2017, and while that number might wane some as he ages and begins to pitch backward more often, for now it has been a truly effective approach for him, as his fastball is marked down for a flatly-absurd 34.3 pVal score in 2017 and held opposing hitters to a pitiful .207 batting average against, and opponents posted an impoverished 79 wRC+ against the pitch, which blew Verlander’s previous career-best wRC+ mark on the fastball (91…in 2011, when he won all the hardware) out of the water entirely. 2017 was also the very first time in Verlander’s long, storied career that he didn’t throw even one fastball (out of 2,055 total fastballs thrown in the season) below 90 miles per hour…not bad for a guy who’s 35 and was very recently having articles written about him that discussed his (then) declining velocity.

Moving beyond the fastball, there are a pair of breaking pitches that are utterly devastating pitches for him, and they almost have to be discussed as a pair because of the way they are utilized: the slider, and the curve ball.

First, the slider. Thrown more (22.05%) than any other non-fastball pitch in his repertoire, it averages around 88 miles per hour and saw opponents post a 17.6% swinging strike rate against it, his best mark for the pitch in this regard since 2012. Weirdly, the pitch saw 11 batted balls leave the yard, but the lack of general success (opposing batting average against the pitch was .207 while the wRC+ against the pitch was 92) against it coupled with a 20.8% HR/FB ratio (his career HR/FB ratio on the pitch is 8.4%) probably indicates some modicum of bad luck in that regard. As you can see, it is truly filth:

The curveball, meanwhile, is significantly slower (80.6 miles per hour with huge 12-6 break) than the slider and functions almost as if a breaking ball change up compared to the higher velocity lateral tilt of the slide piece. It’s also a pitch which factors in to the north and south game plan of Verlander well, much like Collin McHugh’s curve ball factors into his elevated fastball game plan.

Obviously, any pitch that can make a veteran Major League hitter look like this is going to be a pretty valuable pitch:

The curve, per PitcherList.com, did allow a career high in line drive rate (26.7%) for Verlander last year, but it remains a devastating swing and miss type pitch for him.

The reason these two pitches (slider and curve ball) work so well together is twofold. The first involves utilizing both offspeed offering out of the same pitching tunnel. Here’s a tweet from the incomparable Rob Friedman that examines the pitch tunnel with a red circle overlaid on the feed to highlight the spot that the pitch “shows” in to the hitter, before moving to significantly different ending locations and at significantly different velocities:

Additionally, there’s the matter of arm slot and release point, both of which are nearly identical for Verlander on these pitches and which help fuel his subterfuge:

The end result is a pair of pitches which are seriously devastating in tandem, and which show no signs at all of slowing down if one examines the early results so far this spring:

The final official pitch listed in Justin Verlander’s repertoire is a change up, shown here from PitcherList.com:

It’s a historically under-utilized pitch for Verlander – he threw it just 3.5% of the time in 2017 – largely because it’s clearly his weakest pitch and (at least since 2014) it gets hit hard, usually. However, it has flashed a little bit closer to plus more recently for the Astros:

Verlander has been public in his desire to recapture some of what made the pitch an elite pitch (opponent wRC+ against the pitch ranged between 29 and 96 every year of his career before 2014) for him (link here, for one example) and, if the early results with the Astros are any indication, seems to be meeting some success. Of course, the pitch is institutionally beloved by Brent Strom, who has had success teaching it to several young players over the last few years, and so seeing the pitch improve for a legendary caliber pitcher like Verlander shouldn’t really be much of a surprise to anyone. It’s entirely possible – one would almost say “likely”, given his prior success with the pitch – that the change up is an offering which returns to prominence in Verlander’s alread-stellar bag of tricks.

Given the pitchability, the command, and the flat out overpowering nature of Verlander’s first five regular season (not to mention his dominant run in the postseason) starts with the Astros…how can he improve?

The answer to that question has its roots in sample sizes.

The Road Ahead

What that means is, quite simply, the 5-0 regular season record with the ERA around one is absolutely not something any Astros fan should expect to be tenable from the staff ace in his age-35 season. Verlander is coming off of multiple years now as being slightly diminished from his peak form in 2011 and 2012, and that trend will not noticeably improve as he ages further over the next two seasons, the last of the years on his current contract. Age is still undefeated, after all.

There are, however, strong indications that perhaps some of Verlander’s early-to-mid thirties decline he experienced in Detroit might be a little more manageable in Houston. First of all, one must consider the pedigree and the self expectations (remember: people driven to this level of success are inherently hungry for improvement, even unto the threshold of greatness) of which he is possessed:

In addition, with respect to our friends at Bless You Boys and all Detroit Tigers fans, the Astros right now are just better at this kind of thing than the Tigers are. It’s not like the Tigers are completely obtuse or naive with regard to analytics and such, but consider the below excerpt from this exquisite Tom Verducci piece after Verlander’s legendary Game 2 performance against the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series:

“One day three years ago, in the middle of a down year in which he would post a 4.54 ERA for the Tigers, Verlander was called into the office of manager Brad Ausmus.

“I don’t see you throwing with conviction behind your pitches,” Ausmus said.

A surprised Verlander snapped back at him.

“I guarantee you can pick any pitch that I’ve thrown and I can tell you exactly what I was trying to do with it,” Verlander said.

The two men began to talk, and as they did, Ausmus figured out what truly was missing in his ace’s game: Verlander still was relying only on his instincts and observations to get people out, when an entire world of data was out there to help him. The conversation opened Verlander’s eyes and mind. He began seeking out pitch data, keeping his own hand-written statistics and notes, and visiting a pitching guru of modern data-based mechanics to learn about spin rates, release points and arm health.

When the Tigers traded Verlander to Houston Aug. 31, another world opened for Verlander. The Astros are one of the most forward-thinking, resourceful teams when it comes to analytics, and Verlander not only embraced it all, he also asked for more. The joke among the quants in the organization was that Verlander was the first guy to actually ask for more than the reams of information they already were crunching.”

The piece (seriously, go read it) goes on to discuss the high speed bullpen cameras the Astros use (which the Tigers had lacked) and the reams and reams of data that the quants on the fifth floor of Union Station churn out for Astros players, and about how Justin Verlander has shed his feel-and-guts shell and fully embraced the data revolution over the last couple of seasons, to the point where Carlos Beltran – who has played with his share of Hall of Fame caliber pitchers – called Verlander “the most prepared pitcher I’ve ever been around” in that same Verducci piece.

The days of Justin Verlander being the best starter on his staff are likely over. Let’s be honest, especially on this team, they’re almost certainly over. However, there are more than enough reasons to believe that he can effectively stave off age regression at least a couple more years and continue to pitch at an extremely high level for the Astros, as long as he can stay healthy. Assuming reasonably good health? Just try and stop him.

The hunger of a Hall of Fame-bound player is insatiable.