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Missing Bats: Justin Verlander

November 28, 2011

This post is part of a series examining the 2011 season’s most dominant pitching performances ranked by number of swinging strikes. For an overview of the study and the full list of 2011’s top swinging strike performances, click here.


Justin Verlander on the mound, Comerica Park, Detroit, April 2007

AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander had the most swinging strikes in any game in 2011 with 24.


The Outing – Justin Verlander

Pitcher: Justin Verlander
Date: June 14, 2011
Opponent: vs CLE
Pitching line: 9 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 12 K (no-hitter thru 7 1/3)
No. of SwStr: 24
Game Score: 94

The season’s highest swinging strike total was turned in by the American League’s most dominant starting pitcher in 2011, AL Cy Young and MVP winner Justin Verlander. The Tigers’ ace hurled his second career no-hitter on May 7th at Toronto but recorded just 11 swinging strikes in that game. The contest we’ll be examining, his two-hit shutout of the Indians on June 14th, was arguably the more dominant performance, as Verlander struck out 12 and recorded an MLB season-high 24 swinging strikes in the process. By Bill James’ metric Game Score, this start was the second-best in all of baseball in 2011 rating a 94. Only Chris Capuano’s unexpected 13-K gem ranked better, at 96, while Verlander’s no-no, which featured just four strikeouts, scored a 90.

How did Detroit’s hard-throwing ace manage to miss so many Indians’ bats that night? In the next section we’ll examine the PitchF/X data for the outing, aided in visualizing the data by Brooks Baseball’s PitchF/X tool.

The Pitches

While Verlander is known for his overpowering fastball and the ability to register triple digits on the radar gun deep into the game, that pitch didn’t produce the most swings and misses for him against the Tribe. Rather it was his changeup (CH), thrown just 29 times, that produced a remarkable 15 whiffs, for a swinging strike rate on the pitch of 51.7%. Verlander’s changeup is a devastating pitch both on its own merits and for the way he juxtaposes it against his blazing four-seam fastball (FF). The changeup’s average velocity on June 14th was 86.4 MPH, a significant nine full miles per hour slower than his four-seamer, which averaged 95.4 MPH. The armside movement on the pitch averaged a remarkable -11.24” (the negative denotes the pitch’s movement towards the right-handed batter’s box), a figure that we’ll see is on the high side for changeups even among the elite pitchers examined here.

On the Brooks Baseball graphic below, Verlander’s changeups are clustered between 84-88 MPH and at about -8” to -13”. Swinging strikes, in yellow, make up a majority of his changeups thrown (15 of 29, as noted above). Verlander’s next-best pitch for generating swinging strikes was the four-seam fastball, which he used to record 6 SwStr out of 42 pitches, for a 14.3% SwStr% on the pitch. Of Verlander’s 12 strikeouts that night, nine came via the swinging strike, with six of those at bats ending on a changeup, two on a four-seamer, and one on a curveball.

Justin Verlander, 6/14/2011, Horizontal Movement x Speed


The Hitters

In any pitcher-batter confrontation, the pitcher only tells half the story. We can get a better picture of the game in question by looking at the lineup Verlander faced that night and how each hitter fared against him.

As many managers would against Verlander, Cleveland skipper Manny Acta filled out his lineup card with a preponderance of left-handed bats on June 14th. The order included lefties Grady Sizemore, Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo, John Buck, and Jack Hannahan as well as switch-hitters Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera. Collectively, those seven batters went 1-22 against Verlander with 12 strikeouts, the lone hit a Santana single. The lineup included just two righties, both hitting in the bottom half of the order: veteran Orlando Cabrera, who went 1-3 with a single (breaking up Verlander’s no-hit bid in the 8th), and Matt LaPorta, who was hitless in three at bats but also did not strikeout. Of course one start—28 at bats in this case—is an extremely small sample size, but it’s still worth noting that Verlander was this dominant against a lineup stacked with left-handed bats. His strong showing against lefties and his reliance on the change up, a pitch designed to neutralize opposite-handed hitters, went hand in hand.

Drilling down to the individual batter level, we see that Verlander was most effective against lefties Sizemore (0-4 with 4 Ks), Buck (0-3 with 2 Ks), and Hannahan (also 0-3 with 2 Ks). Against Sizemore he threw 17 pitches over the four at bats, recording three swinging strikes. Two of these, which were both changeups, came in Sizemore’s last at bat, as Verlander began featuring the pitch even more aggressively. This could be seen vividly in the way he approached Buck during his third and final at bat. He started Buck off with three straight changeups, eventually throwing the pitch four times in a six-pitch at bat, and recording swinging strikes on three of them. Verlander seemed to realize by this point that the changeup was his most devastating weapon that night, and he was not going to be shy about using it and even sequencing it back-to-back-to-back. Rounding out Verlander’s impressive night, he made quick work of the overmatched Hannahan, striking him out on the minimum six pitches his first two times up. Five of those six strikes were of the swinging variety, a mixture of four-seamers and off-speed offerings.

Mike Cook © 2011

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