June 13, 2007

Verlander's No-no

In case you have secluded yourself from all forms of media except this blog, Justin Verlander threw a no-hitter last night. Verlander rode the benefit of 12 strikeouts and a couple really good defensive plays behind him to record the second no-hitter of the season (the first coming from Mark Buerhle). This was a complete domination of the Brewers' lineup (who, by the way, recorded 22 hits the previous game) - Verlander struck out 12, and the ones who did make contact didn't get it very far; only three balls were hit to the outfield.

Much has been made of Verlander throwing 102 mph into the ninth inning; his velocity climbed as the game continued, going from an average of 96 in the first few innings to 98 around the sixth to 100 over the final inning. Now, the radar gun at Comerica is famous for not always being accurate - last year in the playoffs, Zumaya was repeatedly clocked at 103 when he was really throwing 100, and Verlander was consistantly hitting triple digits when all season long he'd been clocked at 97. But this one seems fairly legit -
ESPN's Inside Edge (probably insider-only) had Verlander reaching 102 also, and I trust their numbers.

Verlander mixed in a fair amount of changeups and sliders as well, finishing the game with 112 pitches - actually a bit high, considering he faced only 30 hitters. One of the reasons why was that he only threw 50% first-pitch strikes, which is not a terrible number but is less than ideal. Looking through some of his
game logs, this doesn't look like a new thing for him - by my count, in his previous three games his first pitch strike ratios have been 12/26 (46%) against Texas last week, 13/26 (50%) vs Cleveland a few weeks ago, and an especially atrocious 11/29 (38%) against Cleveland on May 31. I can't find FPS data anywhere except by going through game logs, but I know that, when I'm pitching, I usually shoot for a number in the mid-60's. I'd guess that the major league average is somewhere from 55-60%, and a star like Verlander should be in the sixties.

What does this mean? Well, it means Verlander throws too many pitches. His 3.88 pitches per plate appearance are 31st out of 145 pitchers with at least 40 IP this year (incidentally, the lowest number belongs to none other than Greg Maddux, with 3.15), and he's thrown 97 pitches or more in all but one start this year, topping 110 three times. Why does this matter? Verlander is only 24 years old. Last year, he threw over 200 innings (including the postseason); his previous high was 129. And he throws 102 mph. My point is, the Tigers should be careful about Verlander's workload; he could easily end up on the DL for at least a couple weeks before this season is over.

The good news is, he's striking out more hitters. He somehow posted a low K rate last year despite having almost the same stuff; this year, he's upped his rate almost a full K/9 IP. As Rob Neyer wrote last night in
his blog: (insider-only, of course)

Verlander has been "pitching to contact" for a while now, and he's good enough to make that work. But tonight we saw what can happen when he pitches to non-contact. No, he might never throw another no-hitter (Roger Clemens hasn't thrown even one). If Verlander boosts his strikeout rate to eight or nine per nine innings, though, someday he'll add a Cy Young Award to the hardware he's already got.

Verlander's a great pitcher witH Cy Young-caliber stuff. And I like how he was throwing harder late in the game, proving that he has the stamina to go deep into the game and that he isn't throwing every pitch as hard as he can, saving some for when it matters. But the Tigers had better be careful with how they use him, at least until he gets into his prime years.

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