Since tweeting out that he was on the cusp of dominance following a rough start to the season, Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander has returned to his ace form. So what changed?
Going into the 2016 season, the Detroit Tigers had more questions than answers surrounding their rotation, particularly in regard to Justin Verlander. Many doubted if the 33-year-old would ever perform at a high level again given his age and steady decline the past two injury-riddled seasons.
Those doubts gained even more traction after Verlander was roughed up in the early going of the season. Through his first six starts, the right-hander held an abysmal 6.49 ERA and 1.44 WHIP, suggesting that his best days were behind him. It looked even grimmer after the Cleveland Indians tagged him for seven runs to begin the month of May.
After the game, Verlander sent out a tweet promising that he would turn things around in the near future:
It was inevitably met with skepticism, with little to suggest that he could return to his old self. But since that shellacking, Verlander has been true to his word, posting a 2.67 ERA and 0.94 WHIP while striking out nearly 10 hitters per nine innings. He’s a big reason why the Tigers’ rotation has the third lowest ERA in the American League, not to mention the emergence of rookie Michael Fulmer and key contributions from their two young lefties in Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris.
So what has Verlander done differently that has led to his resurgence?
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First off, Verlander has seen a notable spike in his velocity, as his four-seam fastball on average has increased from 92.7 mph to 94.5 mph, which is the fastest it’s been since 2013. That certainly bodes well for someone who relies on the fastball 58 percent of the time, the third most of any pitcher in the league this season. It’s not uncommon for pitchers to need a few weeks to dust off the rust as they get into the flow of the season, which was the case for Verlander, who appears to be fully healthy again.
The fastball isn’t the only pitch that has involved a velocity jump. After Verlander’s slider wasn’t fooling anyone to start the season – opponents were hitting over .300 against it – Verlander decided to completely revamp the pitch. It now acts as a cutter, going from 84.8 mph to 89.2 mph with nearly three extra inches of vertical movement to the pitch since the shift in approach.
Although Verlander insists that it is still a slider, this version displays much tighter movement with a more pronounced and later drop to it. The pitch has become a prominent member of his arsenal since he tossed seven scoreless innings against the Texas Rangers in his first start following his tweet. To get a sense of what it looks like, take a peek at the GIF below:
What looks to be a strike on the edge dives out of the zone at the last second to punch out Ryan Howard. Verlander is getting opposing hitters to chase 41 percent of his sliders that are outside of the strike zone, which is the highest mark of his career, while limiting them to a .139 average. Not only that, but Verlander has nearly doubled his whiff rate with the pitch from nine percent to 17 percent since his tweet. It’s a staggering difference and a clear catalyst for his career-high 27 percent strikeout rate that ranks second behind only Chris Archer among American League starting pitchers.
If the Tigers, who are currently three games out of the wild card spot entering Saturday, find a way to earn a postseason berth, Verlander would be a valuable asset to deploy given his experience (16 starts) plus success (3.39 ERA) in playoff games in his career. He could very well lead his club deep into October with a new and improved repertoire.