Verlander's season struggles go beyond velocity dip
Ace has experienced control decline in strike zone as well as walk rate uptick
At 31, Justin Verlander is far from old. For many power pitchers, the early 30s seem to be a sweet spot, in fact. Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan are among the hard throwers who had great seasons at age 34.
Yet it's hard to miss that Verlander circa 2014 is not nearly as effective as the '13 vintage, who in turn was less potent than in '12 and '11. Something is amiss with the Tigers' right-hander, who is on his way to his worst season since '08.
Verlander's ERA would be his highest in any full season in his career. His strikeouts per nine innings are down, from 9.2 over the past five years to 6.4 this year. His walk rate, 2.5 over those seasons, is at 3.8 this year. It's not a pretty picture.
We're velocity-obsessed these days, so it's hard to miss that Verlander is not throwing as hard as he used to. But it's also not that simple. There's a lot going on with the former American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Award winner.
"I think it's a combination," said manager Brad Ausmus. "I think a lot of it has to do with he's not locating the ball the way he normally does. But my feeling is it'll creep back up."
It's true that Verlander's fastball has less zip these days. His average fastball velocity is steadily dropping from year to year. But it's been falling for much longer than he's been struggling. It peaked in 2009-10 and has been on a consistent decline since then. Yes, his velocity was lower in his Cy Young Award-winning season than the year before.
If you're looking for more evidence that it's not as simple as 1-to-1, velocity affecting success, his game logs from this year tell the tale. As Verlander has dipped further into his slump, he's actually adding giddyup to his fastball -- averaging over 94 miles per hour for the first, second and third times this year within the past four weeks. It hasn't helped.
The outlier this year is contact rate. And more specifically, contact inside the strike zone. It's way up. That may be partly due to velocity, but it almost certainly is more a factor of location. Hitters are making contact at an 80.9 percent rate overall against Verlander this year, the highest rate since 2008. Likewise, the 85.9 percent contact rate on strikes is the highest in six years.
Meanwhile hitters are swinging more when he throws strikes (66.1 percent of the time, highest since 2007), and less when he doesn't (28.4 percent, lowest since '08). They're not chasing outside the zone, and they're not missing inside the zone. That's a bad combination.
It suggests that perhaps hitters are seeing the ball out of Verlander's hand better than in past years. There's another piece of evidence to support that idea, as well.
The first time through the order, he's been only a little less effective than in past years. But whereas Verlander used to be practically legendary for his ability to mow down hitters late in games, this year he's getting knocked around in the later innings. Batters are hitting .336 and slugging .550 against Verlander after his second time through the order. In 2011, those numbers were .218 and .326.
Verlander is also missing within the strike zone more than ever. When a pitcher has poor control, it's a problem. Walking batters can be dangerous. But when the issue is command within the strike zone, it can be catastrophic. The worst strike is much, much worse than the worst ball.
"You go back and look at the pitches," Verlander said, "and even though they weren't sharply hit, they weren't precisely located either."
A velocity drop exacerbates that, of course. An extra couple of miles per hour can enable a pitcher to get away with some location mistakes. However, if you consistently miss the glove, you consistently throw poor strikes, you're going to get hit -- whether you throw 90, 94, or 98.
None of this should be taken as a eulogy for Verlander's career. Those aforementioned fireballers who thrived at 34? They both had relatively pedestrian seasons leading up to those big years.
When you've got talent, and smarts, and drive, you can improve. It's up to Verlander to do just that.
Matthew Leach is an editor and reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.