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Justin Verlander And A Lack Of Home Runs

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

As currently situated, Justin Verlander is a favorite to receive his third AL Cy Young award for his performance — 170 innings, 1.80 ERA — this season. Considering how he is 39 years old and had Tommy John surgery roughly two years ago, his performance will be remembered for a long time. Deservingly so, I might add, once you account for how he is posting these kinds of results with diminished strikeout numbers. But, wait, the velocity is still there?!

But that is another post for another day. However, when first reviewing the numbers, I couldn’t help but notice this interesting aspect of Verlander’s performance this season, which is probably tied to the decreased offensive environment across the league: The decline in home runs allowed. In fact, he has only allowed 12 this season. Compared to his 2019 season, when Verlander allowed 36 home runs, the third-highest that season of any pitcher that year. The saving grace for the eventual AL Cy Young winner was that 28 of those long balls were solo home runs. Only one of those home runs allowed more than two runs, a three-run shot by DJ LeMahieu on June 23, 2019.

Justin Verlander’s HR/FB Rates, Full Seasons Since 2017

  • 2017: 11.5%
  • 2018: 11.1%
  • 2019: 16.0%
  • 2022: 6.3%

For additional context, below is the home run per fly ball ratio in the majors for every season since 2017.

  • 2017: 13.7%
  • 2018: 12.7%
  • 2019: 15.3%
  • 2020: 14.8%
  • 2021: 13.6%
  • 2022: 11.4%

The actual baseball has played a role in decreasing the overall offensive environment this season, with the ball not carrying as well as it did in years past. The rate of home runs is down, while exit velocity is generally higher this season compared to past campaigns, dating back to 2017. Throw in humidors at all thirty ballparks, and these effects combined to put a meaningful dent in offensive production.

For Verlander, I wonder how much of this decrease in his home rate is ultimately sustainable. If I am on the right track, it does take roughly 400 fly balls for a pitcher’s home run to fly ball ratio to begin to stabilize. He only has 189 on the season, so we’re not quite halfway there. While Verlander has become a bit more efficient about preventing fly balls in general compared to 2019 — again, not solely due to the pitcher, but other external forces — it begs me to wonder if he has been lucky to some degree on the season. After all, Verlander’s flyball rate — 43.2% — isn’t noticeably lower than his 2019 rate of 45.2%. Also, it only takes about 70 balls in play for a pitcher’s fly ball rate to stabilize, so that figure feels accurate. At 6.3%, however, I am not sold if Verlander isn’t due for some regression to the mean in the home run department in the nearish future.

At this point, I believe it is safe to state that part of Verlander’s resurgence is due to the number of home runs, or lack thereof, he has allowed in 2022. While it is certainly possible that he has made some adjustments to help prevent home runs, his flyball rate indicates not much has changed. Instead, due to an increasingly deadened ball, Verlander’s performance has benefitted in 2022 by helping to keep the ball in the park.