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A Deeper Look Into Justin Verlander's Early Dominance

*Statistics as of May 9th*

Not many in the game have had a career as accomplished as Justin Verlander. Even fewer have maintained consistency and effectiveness as far into their career as Verlander has, let alone after a late-30s UCL tear. 19 months removed from the injury, Verlander, who just a few years ago was one of the elite starting pitchers in the game, is back and seemingly as healthy as ever. While his comeback story and renaissance are certainly impressive, some questions remain regarding his current production rate. Several things have gone right for Verlander in 2022, pointing toward a positive future. Although these current numbers may not sustain themselves (highlighted by other-worldly stats like a 1.93 ERA), a new question then emerges: what part of Verlander’s game is sustainable?

In 2022, Verlander’s 3.69 pCRA ranks among the top 100 among eligible pitchers this season, standing 0.47 points below the league average. If you’re not familiar with this new frontline statistic, pCRA (Predictive Classified Run Average) is used to predict future production as it takes into account walks, strikeouts, and barrel rates. Other peripheral stats like xFIP and SIERA only consider the type of contact, while this statistic accounts more for the quality of said contact. These factors create a stat that solely includes what a pitcher can control, therefore making it the most accurate stat for an individual’s skill, as well as a more precise way to predict future ERA. In breaking down this ranking, the individual parts must be analyzed. His strikeout numbers are down significantly, falling from 12.11 in his 2019 Cy Young campaign to a far worse 8.54 in 2022. A Cy-Young-caliber campaign wasn’t, shouldn’t have been, and still isn’t expected for Verlander based on these metrics. Another factor that has declined significantly for Verlander since his last full season is the RPMs (rotations per minute) on his pitches. An RPM decrease on fastballs leads to less of a carry (or rise effect) on the pitch, an effect that is known to generate more swings and misses. With breaking pitches, the RPMs create topspin, therefore allowing its break to be sharper and more deceptive to opponents. Verlander’s four-seamer has witnessed a near 200 RPM decrease since that Cy Young campaign, while his slider and curveball have seen RPM decreases of 194 and 266, respectively. This is obviously due to the foreign substance ban, which was instituted during Verlander’s recovery from Tommy John surgery. While this does not help Verlander, nearly all pitchers struggled with this implementation. Still, this is a relatively mild adjustment, serving as a good sign for Justin’s future.

As everyone may know, the ability for one pitch to be ultra-effective can change the entire outlook of a pitcher. Hence, let’s examine his repertoire. Verlander’s four-seam fastball, once used as his primary strikeout pitch, is now inducing ground balls and weaker contact. This has been paying dividends, as evident by its much-lower 4.6 dERA (known as Deserved ERA, it is a defense-adjusted normalized ERA to show if the pitcher's defense is making the pitcher look better or worse than their actual skill). The pitch has also led to balls that were hit 13 degrees lower in launch angle to go along with a ground ball rate that has increased by nearly 15%. Barrel rate has also seen a significant drop, exhibiting a nearly 4% decrease. While the pitch hasn’t missed nearly as many bats (6.6 lower swinging strike rate, over 15% lower Whiff/Swing, and a near 10% called strikes plus swinging strikes drop), it has missed barrels. The reduction of swing and miss on his fastball can likely be attributed to a far lower RPM (2577 in 2019 vs. 2397 in 2022), but this has not hurt him thus far. His slider has been another effective and impressive pitch. While it hasn’t gotten nearly as many called strikes and whiffs (CSW down 8.3% compared to 2019), the pCRA and dERA remain low. This suggests that the effectiveness of the pitch won’t decline drastically. It is worth noting that this is a much different pitch than it used to be. It has a vertical movement decrease of 1.7 percent, a -6.6 K-dK% (K%-Deserved K%, the expected rate of strikeouts), and a 4.8 BB-dBB (BB%-Deserved BB%, the expected rate of walks). These numbers suggest that his performance may regress in some fashion. That is completely fine for Justin though, as his curveball has developed location-wise and has been very effective, despite a lower spin rate. Verlander’s curveball in 2022 has a 1.66 dERA and a 0.51 pCRA, holding opponents to a .064 xwOBA (expected wOBA). The pitch has not been barreled up a single time (albeit only 81 pitches), and has induced ground balls, whiffs, and called strikes. The pitch has a 40.0% barrel rate, generating a 38.3% CSW and a 33.3% Whiff/Swing. Whatever way you look at it, his entire arsenal serves to be a force reckoned with throughout the entire season, even if some of the statistics gradually get worse.

In concluding this analysis of Justin Verlander, it is important to clarify that this has been an incredible start to the season for the flamethrower. As of now, he has provided innings at nearly the same rate as before the Tommy John surgery (6.5 IP/S), making his work-horse status appear to be unchanged. His weak contact and bat-missing ability will more than likely be lower, as will his other peripherals (predictive statistics). Most pitch data suggests that Justin is indeed overperforming, but as previously mentioned, this should not be alarming. While some regression is inevitable, a knockoff of a few percentage points on important metrics will still leave him as an above-average pitcher. If he stays healthy (which is far from a guarantee given his injury history), Predicting a 180+ inning season is not out of the question. Significant production would be expected at that point - a mid-3 ERA and a K/9 hovering around 9 seems reasonable, taking all things previously discussed into account. Justin Verlander may’ve struggled with injury, but it appears that most of his game is indeed sustainable, furthering the narrative that the righty will be around for a bit more before retiring to the Hall of Fame.


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