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What Has Changed With Justin Verlander?

Pointing out a couple of changes to the veteran right-hander’s approach compared to last season.

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Philadelphia Phillies Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

We’re already familiar with Justin Verlander. After all, he has pitched for the Astros almost exclusively since September 2017. There is little in terms of surprises that he could give us. But even the most experienced pitchers adjust and tinker. Verlander himself did when the Astros acquired him the first time. Pitchers, in other words, can change by varying degrees. Some eventually do, or at least make a viable attempt at it. There are even instances when a pitcher makes a drastic change immediately after joining a new club. Take Lance Lynn, for example, following his trade to the Dodgers. It was only one start, but the former White Sox pitcher really leaned into his four-seam fastball — up over 20% compared to his last start for Chicago — at the expense of his cutter.

Of course, Verlander has yet to pitch for the Astros this season. His first start likely occurs sometime in the next couple of days against the Yankees in New York, possibly Saturday as noted before Thursday’s game. Whether he makes any material changes to his approach, we don’t know yet. But we can take a look at his brief tenure with the Mets to obtain some guidance. It is worth noting that his pitch mix is relatively unchanged compared to his last season in Houston. Verlander still throws his four-seam fastball nearly half of the time, with his secondary pitches remaining near their past levels. Yes, his changeup usage has increased slightly at the expense of his fastball and slider, but it isn’t a particularly noteworthy adjustment. In terms of the results, Verlander has increasingly improved the further removed he was from his teres major muscle strain in April.

  • May: 30 IP, 4.80 ERA, 4.57 FIP, 18.2% K%, 5.0% BB%
  • June: 27 IP, 3.33 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 23.1% K%, 7.7% BB%
  • July: 37 13 IP, 1.69 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 21.6% K%, 10.8% BB%

Other than his ERA and FIP, which is trending in the right direction in recent weeks, the figures that stick out the most are Verlander’s declining strikeout rate and his increasing walk rate. It is one thing if one of those figures trends in the wrong direction for a pitcher; it is typically another level of concern when both trend in the wrong direction. In terms of swinging strike rate, another valuable indicator, it still doesn’t look great.

But Verlander has made adjustments, specifically in the last five or so weeks. For one, as analyzed by Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs, the right-hander’s fastball results have improved as of late, with a .269 wOBA in July compared to .405 in June. The interesting aspect isn’t exactly with the results — I’m not complaining, though — but where he is throwing it now compared to June.

Instead of concentrating his location in the upper regions of the strike zone, Verlander has adjusted downwards. But it does go against the grain of what he has done in the past with his four-seam. I do wonder how long this adjustment will last as he is with the Astros once again. That said, the results count and his fastball has become more effective as a result of this location change, especially in light of his decreased swing-and-miss ability.

Verlander’s fastball isn’t the only pitch he has adjusted. His curveball has also seen an increase in effectiveness, with a .165 wOBA in July compared to .323 in June and .459 in May. One possible reason? Improved downward movement.

Downward Movement With Gravity (in)

  • May: 54.7 in
  • June: 58.5 in
  • July: 59.2 in

As always, Verlander isn’t afraid to tinker with his pitches until he finds the best combination. While he is the same pitcher in several areas, there are some key adjustments. He hasn’t shown the same strikeout potential that he did even a season ago, but I am curious whether that is more age-related (quite possible!) or a byproduct of his earlier injury to start the season. Then there is also the possibility that the Astros have him adjust in other ways to help compensate. In any case, though, his return provides a boost to a rotation impacted by injuries all season long.