Without Justin Verlander the Houston Astros would not have won the World Series. No explanation necessary.
Without Justin Verlander, currently rated tenth for WAR among pitchers, but first for much of the season, the Astros would not be dominating MLB with the highest Pythagorean won loss record in baseball.
So, paraphrasing the immortal soul singers, Sam and Dave, “when something is wrong with my Justin, something is wrong with me.”
For much of the early season Verlander was on track to break Bob Gibson’s all-time ERA record of 1.12. As recently as June 2nd he still led the league in ERA sporting a nifty 1.24.
He doesn’t lead the league anymore, and although his 2.12 still looks pretty awesome, in just thirty days that represents almost a doubling. In the five games since June 2nd Verlander’s ERA has been 4.60. Something is wrong with my Justin.
So is something wrong with Verlander, or is this mini-slump just a brief interruption in his accustomed domination over major league hitters? Let’s take a deeper look.
First, let’s establish a career baseline. Since his first year in the majors pitching with Detroit in 2005, he has a 3.40 ERA, a FIP of 3.43, an xFIP of 3.81 and a SIERA of 3.68.
When he was traded to the Astros in 2017 he was in the midst of the worst season of his career. But ironically his season took a decisive turn in a game against the Astros on July 30th, when he pitched a shutout. Prior to that game in 2017 Verlander’s ERA was 4.50. Since that time with the Tigers and the Astros up until June 2nd of this year his ERA in the regular season has been 1.44. During this amazing stretch, the best of his career at the age of 34/35, his BAA was .159, WHIP 0.74, FIP was 2.71, xFIP 3.47, and his SIERA 2.96. He gave up more than three runs in only one game during this stretch, that while still with Detroit, a streak that continued until June 25th of this year.
Unfortunately, how Verlander pitched before this streak during his 2017 slump and how he is pitching since his June 2nd slump is eerily similar.
Pre July 30, 2017: ERA 4.50, BAA .251, WOBA .318, FIP 4.22, xFIP 4.79, WHIP 1.44
After June 2, 2018: ERA 4.60, BAA .254, WOBA .331, FIP 3.91, xFIP 3.66, WHIP 1.24
So has Verlander really lost his mojo? Is he reverting to the pitcher he was before the Astros acquired him? Is he really pitching worse since June 2nd, or is he just having a string of bad luck?
Let’s look at the luck side first.
When Verlander was hot his BABIP was .207. That’s radically low. Even though his ERA was 1.44 his fielding independent pitching was 2.71, again indicating that good fortune was improving his ERA in an unsustainable way. His xFIP of 3.47 indicates that he was having luck not allowing home runs as well. For his career Verlander’s ERA is about the same as FIP and about .40 lower than xFIP, so apparently he manages to avoid home runs a bit more than the metric predicts, but during the hot streak his ERA was a full 2 runs lower than xFIP.
The Astros sure were lucky to get Verlander when he was getting lucky. That is not a Kate Upton joke.
According to his FIP and SIERA (2.96) during this period, Verlander should have been allowing twice as many runs as the amazingly low 1.44 per game he did allow.
And while the good Verlander was benefiting from some good karma, Verlander since June 2nd is clearly reaping divine retribution for his unwarranted earlier good fortune.
Now nearly one third of the balls that are hit against Verlander are finding holes; BABIP since June 2nd is .325. Before his ERA was outperforming his peripherals, now it is under performing. His ERA at 4.60 is nearly .70 above his FIP, and for one of the few times in his career, his ERA is even above his xFIP, by nearly a complete run.
As earlier stated, in the last five games Verlander has surrendered six home runs. His career average is .86 /nine innings. During his hot streak he only gave up 8.7 home runs per fly ball. Since June 2nd that number is 14 per fly ball. Indeed these numbers confirm what xFIP is telling us; that Verlander has had some bad home run luck of late.
And yet, these same peripheral numbers show that Verlander isn’t pitching as well lately as he was, even if the 4.60 ERA number exaggerates this. His FIP since June 2nd is more than a run higher than than it was since from July 30th, 17 to June 2, 18, and for Verlander this has been the most predictive metric of his actual ERA. His xFIP and SIERA numbers have also crept up. They are not only higher than they were during the hot streak, FIP and xFIP are higher than career averages, although SIERA is lower than career average.
So if something is wrong with our Verlander, what is it? Looking at the batted ball and pitch discipline numbers, only one major change is apparent. During the hot streak, the percentage of hard hit balls was only 27.5%. Since June 2nd it is 34%. In 2017 with the Tigers before July 30th, it was 36.6%. Career average: 27.3%. No wonder his BABIP is higher, and more balls are going out of the park. He’s giving up more hard contact now, as he was prior to his trade to the Astros.
The question now is why?
Fangraphs rates the effectiveness of each pitch in a pitcher’s repertoire. During his hot streak Fangraphs rated Verlander’s four seamer at 2.81, slider at 1.22 curveball at 1.78 and change up at -3.55. Since June 2nd we cannot point at any one pitch and declare here is the culprit. They are all worse. Fastball: -.11, Slider: .77, curveball: -1.71, change up: -22.05. For what it is worth five of the six home runs hit against Verlander since June 2nd have been off of his fastball, which he throws about 60% of the time. The batting averages against for all these pitches is up. His basic pitch usage has not changed significantly during all this time under study, however his whiff rate has declined from 12.8% to 11.8%.
So all this tells us is what we already know: Verlander isn’t pitching as well. None of his pitches are as effective. The only additional information this provides is that for Verlander there is no one pitch to blame and no one pitch that provides a refuge.
I have studied the velocity and trajectory data and can find no obvious change in either to explain these recent difficulties. He still has the same fastball velocity, over 95 mph, and changes in the trajectory of his pitches is within normal parameters.
Here are links to charts and graphs which show the changes in vertical and horizontal trajectory in each of Verlander’s pitches since 2016. The chart actually shows a slight increase in vertical slider movement, slight increase in horizontal movement in slider and curveball, but a slight drop off in horizontal four seam movement. I have cross checked earlier periods in Verlander’s career when horizonatal four seam movement correlated with what it is now and did not find that this correlated with diminished overall pitching results.
I decided to check heatmaps to see if there were any differences in the location of Verlander’s pitches from his hot streak to the present slump. The only thing that jumped out at me is how close they are. Check here and here. One thing these maps do show is that Verlander is pitching higher in the strike zone. If you break it down by pitch it is the fastball that is riding high, but how much that accounts for the difference in his performance is doubtful to me. If anyone can make the case that this is the problem when this is the trend in modern pitching have at it.
In general there doesn’t seem to be much difference in Verlander’s overall control. Since June 2nd he has thrown 68.2% of his pitches for strikes. His zone percentage is 49.7 and his first strike rate is 68. From July 30, 2017 to June 2nd of this year he threw 67.69% strikes, with a 48% zone rate and 65% of his first pitches called strikes.
Below are pitch outcome charts for the two periods we are comparing, the first for July 30, 2017-June 2nd, the second for since June 2nd.
This is the most recent pitch outcome data.
If you have the patience to study all this I think you will find that recent Verlander isn’t much different from earlier Verlander, except for the incidence of home runs on fast balls.
And yet, here are the results and averages of Verlander pre- June 2nd and post June 2nd. Clearly very different.
Before June 2nd
Post June 2nd
In the past month the batting averages and slugging percentages on his three major pitches, fastball, slider and curve, have all gone up, except the slugging percentage on the slider, down slightly. We saw how his BABIP in general was up in June. That is reflected on all three pitches on the chart.
Having come this far I haven’t been able to identify any significant difference in Verlander’s pitching, not velocity, not trajectory, not pitch selection, not control. There is a some evidence of command issues if you think pitching slightly higher in the strike zone is a problem. As far as pitch sequencing I have no data but given the consistency of everything else I doubt that is an issue. And yet in his last five outings Verlander has shown a marked decrease in effectiveness, giving up more hits on all pitches, giving up more hard contact, more home runs, and obviously more runs in general.
In my previous articles this year about Dallas Keuchel, Tony Sipp, and Collin McHugh I was able to identify a plausible change in the pitching styles of each that could account for the changes observed in their performances. What I find here with Verlander is remarkable sameness.
We’ve already discussed the luck factor which is certainly part of this, but underlying peripherals do show that batters are hitting Verlander better, not just getting lucky.
The only answer left to me is exactly this sameness. Perhaps, whatever Verlander did to make himself so remarkably successful, is now understood by the league. In late 2017 Verlander made changes, no doubt with the help of Brent Strom and the Astros’ analytics department. Perhaps the analytics departments of the others teams have adjusted. Still, projection services expect a pretty serviceable pitcher going forward, with ERA estimates between 3.14 and 3.52. That’s near his career average, and somewhere between his current xFIP and SIERA for the last month. On the low end, that’s career Roger Clemens. In the mid-range, that’s our old friend Roy Oswalt. No, not Bob Gibson circa 1968, but still a fine anchor on any championship pitching staff. But it also means this team cannot expect to win quite as many games with scores like 2-1 as they did in the early season, especially with Gerrit Cole also trending up in ERA.
The Week in Review: June 28-July 4
Season Record: 57-31. First in AL West, 1.5 games ahead of the Seattle Mariners. Seattle gained two games on Houston this week. Second in AL behind Boston, 1⁄2 game behind first place Red Sox.
Pythagorean won/loss record: 63-25, best in MLB. Run differential: +173
Baseball Reference SRS: 2.0, best in MLB
The Big Trends: The Astros spent this week on the road where they have usually hit well but struggled at the bat, managing only a collective .199 batting average, and .646 OPS. They were one of the worst performing offensive teams in the league this week, and lost their league lead in runs scored to Boston. However, the pitchers held the opposing teams to an OPS of .617, as the Houston staff allowed the opposition only 2.77 runs/9 innings. The Astros miss the presence of Carlos Correa, still on DL, and have had very weak performances from George Springer and Jose Altuve. On the other hand Alex Bregman was named AL player of the week and month and is now the team leader in OPS. Brian McCann was placed on the DL after knee surgery and will be out indefinitely.
Week Record: 3-3. The week began with a four game series in Tampa Bay against the Rays. The Astros won the first game 1-0 thanks to seven scoreless innings from Lance McCullers and a solo home run from Jake Marisnick.
The Astros lost the remaining three games in the series, making losers of Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, who surrendered a season high five runs, and Charlie Morton. The Astros only scored a combined six runs in these last three games, getting only 14 runners in scoring position for the series, stranding all of them. After the first game all the scoring came from two home runs each by Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis.
The Astros took on the Rangers in Arlington for two games, July 3rd and July 4th, winning both, 5-3 and the second 5-4 in extra innings. Dallas Keuchel pitchied seven stron innings allowing only two runs in the first game, and in the second the Astros overcame an early 4 run deficit allowed by Gerrit Cole to win in the tenth on an Evan Gattis sac fly. Josh Reddick broke out in this series with two home runs. Collin McHugh was the winning pitcher in the July 4th game. Game one of Rangers series video here. Game two here.
Hitting: Below is a chart with key team statistics for the last seven days, last 30 days, and for the month. Following will be a discussion of trends and key events.
Astros Team Hitting Stats Compared to League, 7 day, 30 day Season avg.
|last 7 days||.646/27th||78/16th||10 9th||17/27th||20.0/8th|
|last 30 days||.825/2nd||129/2nd||42/3rd||142/4th||16.2/1st|
|year to date||.769/4th||115/1st||113/7th||443/2nd||20.3/6th|
The Astros froze at the plate this week, and lost their lead league in runs and OPS. They are still tied for the league lead in WRC+ with the Yankees but have relinquished sole possession.
Last Week’s Individual Hitting: Below is a chart of the individual statistics compiled by the Astro’s hitters last week.
The hitting was sustained this week primarily by Alex Bregman and Josh Reddick, each with two home runs and plus OPS’s. The normal team leaders had very poor weeks: Jose Altuve with a .367 OPS and George Springer, who continued from his cold month in June with a .272 OPS. Since June 15th Springer is hitting .077, with 5 hits in 77 at bats and 1 RBI. In the absence of Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez only hit OPS .232.
Below is a chart of individual season performances with batting leaders.
For a more comprehensive look here are individual Astros hitting and pitching statistics for the season. (Baseball Reference) and here for Fangraphs.
Pitching: Below is a very detailed chart with year to date, 30 day and 7 day statistics. I will begin with analysis, and if you want to dig deeper, go for it.
The Astros staff continues to lead the league for the year in most categories including ERA, but increasingly it is the bullpen which is leading the way. The starters are barely under 3 in year ERA, a number which keeps rising every week, but the bullpen’s ERA is 2.52 and falling every week. For the last month and seven days the starter’s ERA is 3.70 and 3.44 respectively while the relievers are 1.33 and 1.17. The starters began the year with overwhelming preeminence but have not occupied top rank on a weekly or monthly basis for many weeks. Currently the starters are ranked 9th in ERA for the last 30 day period.
Since June these are the records of the Astros’ starting pitchers: Dallas Keuchel, 2-1 5.09 ERA. Charlie Morton, 3-2 3.12 ERA. Lance McCullers, 2-0 2.81 ERA. Justin Verlander, 2-2 4.34 ERA. Gerrit Cole 4-1 3.86 ERA.
Looks like Lance McCullers gets to be starting pitcher of the month!
Astros 7 Day, 30 Day Season Team Pitching Stats
|Time Frame||ERA/rank||FIP/ rank||xFIP/rank||AVG/rank||K%/rank||BB%/rank||runs/rank||WHIP/rank|
|Time Frame||ERA/rank||FIP/ rank||xFIP/rank||AVG/rank||K%/rank||BB%/rank||runs/rank||WHIP/rank|
|7 day total||2.77/5th||2.39/1st||2.90/2nd||.236/7th||28.6/1st||7.3/13th||18/2nd||1.21/7th|
|7 day starters||3.44/7th||2.31/1st||2.94/4th||.248/14th||28.0/3rd||6.8/12th||16/13th||1.28/15th|
|7 day relief||1.17/2nd||2.58/3rd||2.80/3rd||.204/4th||30.5/2nd||8.5/15th||2/2nd||1.04/5th|
|30 day total||2.62/2nd||3.13/3rd||3.30/2nd||.213/1st||28.6/1st||8.1/13th||91/4th||1.14/3rd|
|30 day starters||3.70/9th||3.64/6th||3.59/6th||.230/4th||26.1/2nd||8.8/22nd||77/17th||1.27/14th|
|30 day relief||1.33/1st||2.09/1st||2.72/1st||.176/2nd||34.2/1st||6.5/4th||14th/1st||0.86/2nd|
Below is a chart of Astros pitchers over the last seven days.
Notice five scoreless innings in relief by Collin McHugh and only 2 baserunners. Four other relievers combined for 7.2 scoreless innings of relief, Hector Rondon, with 2 saves, Will Harris, Ken Giles with one save and Tony Sipp.
Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander continued a pattern of regression.
Below is a chart of the year to date pitching stats with team leaders.
League Comparisons: The following will be a look at how the Astros compare to their main rivals in various hitting and pitching categories.
ERA season: Relief- Astros 2.54, Yankees 2.72, Red Sox 3.15, Mariners 3.80, Indians 5.01
Starters- Astros 2.99, Indians 3.42, Red Sox 3.78, Yankees 3.84, Mariners 3.96
ERA 30 Day: Relief- Astros 1.33, Yankees, 1.49, Indians 2.84, Red Sox 3.07, Mariners 3.93
Starters- Indians 2.97, Yankees 3.35, Red Sox 3.57, Astros 3.70, Mariners 3.93
Interesting trend: Watch the Indians. In the last thirty days they have led this group in starter ERA and their relief pitching has taken a drastic turn towards improvement, with a season ERA of 5.01 but a last 30 day ERA of a respectable 2.84. Astros starting pitching continues to lag at the 30 day level.
wRC+ season: Yankees 115, Astros 115, Red Sox 112, Indians 107, Mariners 107
wRC+ 30 Day: Astros 129, Mariners 110, Red Sox 107, Yankees 106, Indians 105.
The Astros continue to lead the league in fielding percentage at .990 but have continued to drop in defense efficiency ratio to 4th at .714.
Should Charlie Morton and Collin McHugh be All Stars?
This poll is closed