Justin Verlander has been quite good to start the 2013 season. You don’t need me to tell you this. Through four starts he’s accumulated a 2.13 ERA and a matching 2.25 FIP. His strikeout rate is currently higher than it’s ever been in his career, he’s only allowed one home run, and he’s issuing walks at a lower-than-league-average rate.
It’s been business as usual – and perhaps better – for Verlander when it comes to just about everything on his statistical line, but his fastball hasn’t quite seemed to have the usual zip. His average fastball velocity is 93 mph* (down from basically 95 the previous three years), which isn’t bad for the population at large, but it isn’t what we’re used to seeing from this particular pitcher.
*That number might be a little bit doctored as it seems that anything under 91 mph from Verlander gets classified as a changeup when, in fact, some are probably 89-91 mph fastballs. That 93 mph figure may actually be lower.
It’s not that he’s not throwing hard – this FanGraphs velocity graph shows he’s hit at least 95 mph in every outing this year – it’s just that he hasn’t yet ramped it up to the upper 90’s in any outing (he hasn’t hit 97 yet, according to the Pitch f/x data). It’s also clear from the graph that he’s had a string of outings unlike any of the previous two years when it comes to velocity.
It is, perhaps, most similar to his April of 2011 – his Cy Young and MVP award season, it should be noted – but he is quite clearly not throwing even that hard. It’s April, it’s been cold and dreary, and one could make out a pattern of lower-velocity Aprils in his data set, so he could very well ramp it up in the coming weeks. And even if he doesn’t – even if 95-97 is really where he tops out at all year – that’s good enough for him to stay a Cy Young Award caliber pitcher given the quality of his other offerings.
We should have little reason for concern that his early dip in velocity should affect the team’s plans for 2013 success, but considering his recent long-term extension, it could be a cause for concern going forward if it’s a sign that he’s finally starting to lose some of the magic from his right arm. Then again, one could easily imagine Verlander “reinventing himself” in his mid-to-late 30’s as a command/control guy who’s able to keep hitters off balance by effectively mixing pitch types and locations. We’ve actually seen phase one of that transition over the past three or four years as he’s stopped trying to throw his fastball through hitters’ bats and has instead relied upon his complete repertoire. He discovered “the art of pitching,” one might say.
His transformation away from being a max effort guy has lead him to starting off games at an easy velocity. We’ve been accustomed to him starting off 91-93 and going from there, reaching back for the 97-100 in later innings when he needs it. I don’t think we can yet say if he can’t reach back for that velocity right now, or if he simply isn’t tapping into that reserve. Perhaps we’ll see more velocity as he begins to pitch deeper into games.
Justin has put a lot of miles on that right arm – over 200 innings every year he’s been in the major leagues – and he’s bound to start to wear down at some point. His early season velocity decline may be a sign of that, but it may also be nothing. It’s nothing to get concerned over now, I don’t think, but it is something to watch for his next several starts.