WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — When Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander threw Robinson Canó a changeup in his first spring training outing this year, Canó found the pitch as odd as a snowflake here. Verlander had thrown Canó 82 pitches over the past three years, and only three of them were changeups.
Verlander’s changeup had become Sasquatch. Many had heard of it, but few had seen it. For the past three years Verlander essentially abandoned the pitch because he lost the feel for it.
Correction. Verlander reminds me of Roger Clemens, who would speak about his stuff and his body as an outside observer, eschewing the usual ownership of “my stuff” and “I felt” for a detached perspective. The arm wasn’t as quick today, Clemens might say, or we’ll see how the body feels. Such detachment is a firewall to protect their supreme confidence. If something isn’t right they mentally push it into the bin of items outside their control, and thus it cannot gnaw at their iron-forged conviction.
So to be correct, Verlander did not abandon the changeup. It abandoned him.
“I’ve been working on this thing for three years because it vacated me,” he said. “Every bullpen last year I was working on it. I just couldn’t get it. I’ve never tried to go away from it. The hitters told me to go away from it. That’s pretty simple for me.”
The next pitch to Canó was another changeup. Now that was too much for the Mets second baseman. He immediately shot Verlander a look and a smirk as if to say, What the heck is going on? The next pitch after back-to-back changeups … was yet another changeup. Three changeups in a row? Sasquatch wasn’t just back, he also was seen swimming in Loch Ness.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever done that,” Verlander said. “I doubt I would ever do that in a [regular season] game, but you never know.”
Canó eventually flied out to centerfield on a fastball. None of the Mets touched Verlander’s changeup. They either took it for strikes or swung and missed it. Two righthanded hitters struck out on Verlander’s changeup, or one more than did the entire 2018 season. After each one, he looked over his shoulder into the Astros’ dugout, smiled and laughed. It was that much fun to have his old friend back.
Last year Verlander led the American League in strikeouts (290), WHIP (0.902) and strikeout-to-walk rate (7.84). All of those categories were career highs. At age 35, he threw the best baseball of his career. Imagine what he might do now that the changeup is back. It is much more than just a novelty pitch. In its day, say back when Verlander won the Cy Young and MVP awards in 2011, the changeup was Verlander’s best swing-and-miss pitch (23% whiff rate). He used it 16% of the time.
“I always thought it was the great equalizer, especially against lefties,” said Boston pitcher Rick Porcello, Verlander’s teammate in Detroit from 2009-14.
Imagine no more. The indications from spring training are that Verlander has another weapon, on top of the highest four-seam fastball efficiency in the game, a curveball that ranks in the 94th percentile for spin rate and is the fourth toughest hit, and a slider/cutter that is even more frightful against lefties (.179) than it is against righties (.188). Verlander with a nasty quaternary pitch is Prometheus unbound.
He knows the pitch is back because of how hitters are reacting to it. They are taking the bad ones for strikes (which means they didn’t recognize it out of his hand) and they are swinging at the good ones (the ones that dive below the bottom of the strike zone, which are camouflaged as fastballs).
With the help of a high-speed camera, Verlander has worked all spring on throwing the pitch with a firm wrist, the same way he throws his four-seam fastball. In the past three years, when the changeup vacated him, he manipulated his wrist and fingers trying too hard to deaden and move the ball. Good hitters can see if one pitch comes out of a pitcher’s hand differently than another. Changeups, more than any other pitch, need to be disguised because their low velocity makes them hittable when a hitter recognizes early enough that it’s coming. Changeups are like intelligence spies: worthless if their cover is blown.
“Movement,” Verlander said when asked what he wants to see from his changeup. “Velocity, but mainly movement. My changeup had been kind of flat, and when it did do something I was telecasting it by getting under it and making it kind of pushy. It’s the opposite of my slider.”
The slider/cutter (as well as the curveball) is a pitch that runs from Verlander’s arm side to glove side. The changeup, as Porcello said, is the equalizer because it gives Verlander a pitch that either stays in its lane or fades from glove side to arm side, opposite of the slider. In either case, it is a perfect complement to his other pitches. Verlander can make the ball ride as well as any pitcher in baseball (four-seam fastball), spin the ball with varying degrees of tilt in one direction (curveball and slider/cutter) and now deaden and fade the ball in the other (changeup).
For too many years, when radar guns provided us with the only metrics of a pitch, announcers would make a big deal out of the “separation” in velocity between the fastball and changeup. Some still do. But in these days of pitch-tracking systems, the shape and spin of the pitch are more important than the difference in velocity. For instance, the 10 toughest changeups to hit last year from starting pitchers averaged only 8.2 mph less than that pitcher’s four-seam fastball. Among them, Jacob deGrom’s changeup has only a 7 mph separation and Zack Greinke’s changeup has only a 3 mph separation.
Verlander throws his changeup hard, like Luis Severino and Stephen Strasburg, at 87.4 mph, giving him a separation of only 7.6 mph—which he doesn’t even care about.
“People like to talk about splitties or the Trevor Hoffman changeup,” Verlander said, referring to pitches with massive separation. “Those are outlier pitches. In a nutshell, I don’t need to have that separation. I think everybody falls in love with this notion, ‘Let’s have a huge gap.’ Look at some of the best changeups in baseball right now. Greinke’s is one or two miles per hour below his heater and so is Felix’s [Hernandez].”
Verlander uses the pitch-tracking metrics, not the radar gun, to confirm the quality of his changeup.
“I look at shapes and stuff as much as I can,” he said. “Number one, I want to get on the mound and see the reactions hitters tell me. That’s A-No. 1. If it matches up with some of the information we can get, hey, that’s a win-win.”
People love to talk about “the last of a breed.” That was part of the narrative when Jack Morris went into the Hall of Fame. Morris pitched at least eight innings 248 times. Since 1977, when Morris debuted, nobody has done it more—and it’s hard to imagine anybody will. (The active leader, CC Sabathia, has done it 103 times.)
A similar narrative was built around the late Roy Halladay when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in January. Halladay threw 67 complete games, the most by anyone since he broke into the big leagues in 1998, and no one is close today (Sabathia is also the distant active leader here with 38).
As the game skews younger and devalues starting pitchers further, Verlander is carving out a rare place in the modern game. His career declined around age 31, just as we are conditioned to expect with starting pitchers, especially those with a worn odometer of innings like the one Verlander spun madly. A cascade of physical breakdowns derailed Verlander: an abdominal injury in 2013 required surgery in 2014. His body wasn’t fully healed, which led to poor mechanics, which led to strained triceps in 2015.
Verlander rededicated himself to getting his body and his mechanics right. He has found another three miles per hour on his fastball since turning 33.
It’s the kind of career fork that Clayton Kershaw is facing right now. Kershaw turns 31 this month, the same age when Verlander fell. Likewise, Kershaw is attempting to unlock his power, a task derailed this spring by a shoulder irritated by the extra work he invested while searching for that lost velocity.
“To me there’s so much more to it,” said Dodgers president Andrew Friedman, when asked if a pitcher could regain velocity in his 30s. “When your kinematic sequence is off and therefore you’re not generating velocity the same, and then you get your sequence back? So, yes [it can happen].”
When reminded of Verlander’s regained velocity, Friedman said, “I guess that’s my point. Just adding arm strength, no. But if there’s a reason why it dipped? And then getting back in synch? Then yes.”
Verlander is in the third stage of his career—rise begat fall, which begat rise. The excellence of the third stage is stunning in the modern game. Understand that through age 32 Verlander already had a stellar career: a .618 winning percentage, a 3.52 ERA and a 121 ERA+. But he has been even better through ages 33-35: a .644 winning percentage, a 2.97 ERA and a 142 ERA+.
That last number deserves a deeper look, not just in the context of a game that kicks to the curb pitchers in their mid-30s, but also in historical context. Verlander is only the 35th pitcher in history to make 100 starts between ages 33-35. Among the 35 mid-30s workhorses, only five ever pitched to a better adjusted ERA than Verlander: two pitchers from a century ago, Cy Young and Eddie Cicotte; one from a half century ago, Jim Bunning; and two pitchers tied to PED use in the Mitchell Report, Clemens and Kevin Brown.
ERA+ Ages 33-35 (Min. 100 Starts)
1. Roger Clemens
2. Cy Young
3. Kevin Brown
T4. Eddie Cicotte
T4. Jim Bunning
6. Justin Verlander
7. Greg Maddux
8. Whitey Ford
9. Gaylord Perry
10. Bob Gibson
He may not be “the last of a breed,” especially with the indefatigable Max Scherzer entering his age-34 season this year, but Verlander is a rarity in how he has extended his career. He has made possible this third-stage rocket-booster to his career by seeking and absorbing new concepts. He remade his body through cutting edge physiotherapy in New York in 2014-15. He re-tooled his mechanics by applying state-of-the-art throwing drills and analysis in Texas in 2015-16. He embraced high-speed cameras and pitch tracking technologies in Houston when traded there in 2017. And now he has rediscovered his changeup – or, to borrow from his world, his changeup returned to him.
“He’s amazing,” said Astros pitching coach Brent Strom. “You know what his goal is, don’t you? His goal is to pitch until he’s 45, like his idols, Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan.”
By now, who are we, or is any hitter, to doubt?