Another year, another torrid April and May for the Houston Astros’ Justin Verlander. He’s in his early season beast mode at 7-1 with a 2.38 ERA. He’s got 77 punch outs in 64.1 innings. All that adds up to a minuscule 0.79 WHIP and an opponents’ xBA of .206. By any measure, those are amazing numbers. It’s all the more impressive considering he’s in his 14th season in the majors, though for hot second, his domination became questionable.

Per My Top Sportsbooks: “Three-time nominee and one-time AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander looked cooked after finishing 2014 with a 4.54 ERA. In the five years since, he’s won a World Series title (2017), made an All-Star Game (2018), sired a baby girl with supermodel Kate Upton, and is now the slight favorite to win another pitching title.”

The 36 year old right hander has been in peak form primarily relying on three pitches: four-seam fastball, slider, and curve. For the past few seasons, the trio has served him well as these pitch diagrams for the past three seasons demonstrates.

2019
2018
2017

In Verlander’s most recent appearance against the Detroit Tigers, the second pitch in his arsenal was almost unhittable. Per the Houston Chronicle’s Chandler Rome,

“Twenty-three of Verlander’s 101 pitches were swung on and missed, equaling the ace’s season high… Verlander’s slider was superb. Twelve of the 25 he threw were swung through. Five of his nine strikeouts ended with one. Throwing his curveball for eight called strikes aided in his ability to mix the two breaking pitches.”

The fact that Verlander’s slider has developed into a reliable alternative to his fastball as an out pitch is testament to his evolution as a pitcher. Early in his career, he relied on a changeup much more as an alternative to his fastball and curve. That steadily changed and by 2015, he was throwing more sliders than changeups and curves. In general, it has made him a more efficient pitcher.

The correlation between the emergence of Verlander’s slider and his resurgence as a dominant pitcher appears strong as seen in the parabolic increase in strikeouts and his adjusted WAR (RA9-WAR) as well as his decrease in base on balls.

Just to put Verlander’s recent numbers in perspective, compare his RA9-WAR with one of the most, if not the most, dominant pitchers of the past decade, Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers’ ace, while still a force on the mound, has seen his numbers decrease steadily since 2013.

There is one caveat when considering Verlander’s current season numbers. Historically, June and July have been rough months for him so expect a dip in his productivity until August.

YEAR JUNE JULY
2018 2-2 1-2
2017 1-0 1-3
2016 3-1 4-0
2015 0-1 1-2
2014 0-3 3-2
2013 2-1 3-3

Down months aside, Justin Verlander has always picked himself up and finished each season strong. It’s the mark of a champion and the smart money should be on him keeping on trend. By rights, the World Series appears to be Houston’s to lose. You can also say the same about the American League Cy Young Award.

SOURCES: My Top Sportsbook, Houston Chronicle, Fangraphs, Baseball Savant, mlb.com

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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