How Justin Verlander is defying conventional baseball wisdom
Justin Verlander's first two pitches of his start last Friday night at Yankee Stadium both registered 90 miles per hour. The pitch tracker in mlb.com's Gameday was confused -- the first was classified as a fastball, the second as a changeup.
Both pitches were, in fact, fastballs, but the reputation of the Tigers' ace precedes him. Verlander's average fastball velocity (95.4 mph) has been the majors' best among starters since 2009, according to FanGraphs. Surely if the AL's reigning Cy Young and MVP winner threw a fastball, it would be unmistakable.
The truth is that the relatively slow start is part of Verlander's concerted effort to pace himself through the early part of his outings so that he has plenty left in the tank for the late innings. Of course, it's easy enough to plan that, but it's another thing to have the ability to actually dial up one's best heat when one ought to be most tired.
Verlander says there's no trick -- "not that I know of" -- to doing so. "It's just the way I've always been," he said. "For as long as I can remember."
Sure enough Verlander capped his six-inning performance against the Yankees -- his 47th straight start of at least that length, 34 more than the next longest active streak -- with a 98-mph pitch to Eric Chavez that was his fastest of the game.
That performance was similar to his start in Kansas City on April 16 in which Verlander's first fastball went 91 mph while his only four 100-mph pitches that night were his final four fastballs -- pitches Nos. 127, 128, 129 and 131 of his night -- to strike out Alex Gordon to end the game.
It's a trend worth watching both on Wednesday, when Verlander takes the hill at home against the Royals, and the rest of the season.
Thanks to research done by Dan Brooks and Harry Pavlidis of the incomparable BrooksBaseball.net, we have the data (thanks to Pitch F/X) to illustrate how much Verlander is able to defy conventional baseball wisdom -- and, it would seem, common sense -- by throwing harder the longer he pitches. The table below shows, inning-by-inning, the percentage of pitches that are fastballs, the average velocity of those fastballs and the ERA for each inning:
With Verlander having only thrown 5 1/3 innings in the ninth over this time span, the three runs he allowed at Tampa Bay in his second start this season ruined his ERA that inning. (His final four pitches of that game were 100, 99, 99 and 100 mph, but velocity isn't everything.)
The following graph from BrooksBaseball.net shows his average velocity by pitch type over the course of the game (CH is for changeup, CU for curveball, FA for fastball and SL for slider):
What's most remarkable is Verlander's ability to continually do this despite shouldering the heaviest workload in the game. He's become so consistently effective that Tigers manager Jim Leyland has said that he has grown tired of addressing Verlander's pitch count in his regular media briefings.
While injuries to pitchers' arms are a major industry issue, Verlander continues to remain the picture of health: He has never started fewer than 30 games in his six full seasons and his Wednesday start against the Royals will be his 141st since the beginning of the 2008 season, keeping him in a relative dead-heat with the Yankees' CC Sabathia, the Angels' Dan Haren and the Indians' Derek Lowe.
Verlander outpaces the field in another sign of endurance during that time: pitches thrown. Since 2008, Verlander has thrown 15,151 regular-season pitches in those four seasons, the most in baseball and 564 more than Sabathia. What's more, Verlander owns three of the top seven single-season totals for most pitches thrown over the past four full years:
Verlander has shown no wear for his efforts, either. After his disappointing 2008 season in which he went 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA and 1.40 WHIP, he's gotten better each year since: 19-9, 3.45 ERA, 1.18 WHIP in 2009; 18-9, 3.37 ERA, 1.16 WHIP in 2010; 24-5, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP in 2011; and 2-1, 2.41 ERA, 0.86 WHIP so far in 2012.
Verlander also noted that at the end of each season -- even after an additional 20 1/3 postseason innings last fall -- his arm hasn't been tired.
"Actually it feels really good," he said.
How one's arm feels is the most important factor in its health. That's according to Glenn Fleisig, the Ph.D. research director of the American Sports Medicine Institute, who said listening to one's body is the best method of preventing injuries.
"Pitch counts are a guideline," Fleisig said. "Fatigue should be the rule."
Individual pitchers respond differently to similar stresses, and the same pitch count or test of biomechanics won't apply equally to everyone. The best predictor of whether a pitcher is going to get hurt is whether he's pitching while feeling fatigued.
"Research has shown that fatigue is a critical signal to stop pitching," Fleisig said. "If a pitcher is pitching as hard or harder at the end of the game and if he does not alter his mechanics and doesn't feel fatigued, then I don't think he's at any increased risk of injury. But there is not a large sample of pitchers who are in this situation to be studied."
One other pitcher routinely among the league leaders in innings pitched and pitches thrown is Sabathia, who doesn't build velocity throughout a game but does sustain it.
"Obviously you work hard in between starts so you have the stamina so you can pitch late into the game and not lose velocity, but I don't think you teach anybody how to do that," Sabathia said. "You've got to work at it to be able to keep the stamina, but you've got to be blessed and God-given to be able do that.
"I want to be steady and even and to be able to have a little extra late. Justin starts off 90, 91 and builds up to 100. That would be hard for me to do and keep my delivery."
Detroit pitching coach Jeff Jones described Verlander as "very regimented" in his offseason throwing and "focused and intense" in his bullpen sessions.
"He's a phenomenal pitcher," Jones said. "Anybody who can do that, it's so unusual. The one thing he has done the last couple of years is he saves a little bit and he's got some left at the end of the game. In his first two or three years he'd come out and throw his fastball basically as hard as he could."
Now Verlander is arguably the game's best pitcher with a remarkable knack for going deep into games and heating up when he does. How he does it, however, remains a mystery.
"I have no explanation," Jones said.
The results, for now, will have to speak for themselves.