On Monday April 16th, Justin Verlander threw his first complete game of the season in a 3-2 win against the Kansas City Royals. Five days earlier, he entered the 9th inning with just 81 pitches thrown, but came a bit unraveled and couldn’t close out the Tampa Bay Rays. To do so against Kansas City, he needed 131 pitches, a figure that drew the ire of some fans and analysts largely because of the time of season we are in right now (in addition, of course, to the general overreaction and misunderstanding of pitch counts). When will people stop treating Verlander like just another pitcher? He has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is on a different level especially when it comes to workload concerns.
This has been clear for the last couple of years and of course last year, he showed that his talent is on a different plane as well. We live in a hypersensitive era when it comes to the handling of pitchers, but that doesn’t mean that every pitcher should be subjected to the same standards when it comes to pitch counts and workloads. The most important thing to remember is that it isn’t the number of pitches thrown, it is the number of pitches thrown when tired that causes issues. Racking up laborious pitches are the ones that will destroy a pitcher over time. Nothing about Verlander’s 9th inning last Monday appeared fatigued and anyone that knows anything about the ace understands that he gets stronger as the game progresses, not weaker.
Your eyes don’t deceive you: Verlander threw 19 fastballs of 95+ MPH to close out the game including four of his final five pitches at 100 MPH (not seen in the chart: an 88 MPH changeup). And while the numbers might be a tick inflated because there is some dispute around the readings at Kaufmann Stadium, he was still pumping crazy heat in 110+ pitches into the game. As FanGraphs’ Bill Petti showed last week in a great breakdown, hot gun or not this is the norm with Verlander and he is in a class by himself.
It is generally believed that any ill effects from a heavy workload start will be felt in the subsequent two or three starts. So how does Verlander perform after outings of 125 or more pitches? I decided to look at the three starts immediately following a 125+ outing for Verlander over his entire career. He has 17 such outings in his career (including six a season ago), but only 15 fit the study as two of his final three starts in 2009 saw him meet the threshold, but he didn’t have a subsequent trio of starts to measure and carrying over to the next season wouldn’t have made sense. Unsurprisingly, his work in those outings is nothing short of excellent.
There are some meltdowns sprinkled in there, but the bottom line is incredible with a 2.50 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 112 innings averaging 127 pitches per outing and peaking at 132 during a May 29th start last year. So what happens in the subsequent starts? Surely he should see some degradation after posting such strong numbers in the big pitch count starts, right?
Or not. Incredibly he actually gets better. Yes, the ERA does jump 0.40 to 2.90, but the WHIP dips below 1.00, the strikeout and walk rates improve by 1.0 resulting in an eye-popping 5.0 K/BB. He also manages 20+ innings in 13 of the 15 trios meaning he is going 6.7 innings or more on average and 11 of the 15 saw him averaging 7+ innings per outing (21+ IP in the trio). In fact in the six instances from 2011, he threw no fewer than 22 innings in any of the trios and averaged nearly 24 innings (23.8 IP).
In the eight instances since 2010, he has yet to post an ERA of 2.75 or worse, only once topped 0.91 WHIP (1.10) and dipped below 9.4 K/9 just once (7.2), too. The bottom line is that on the whole he shows no discernible ill effects from an outing of 125+ pitches. Furthermore, he has no problem going deep into the games following the big pitch count game averaging 112 pitches per over the six year span and 115 pitches per in the last two years.
Following the well-established trend, Verlander showed no discernible degradation in his stuff in his first follow up start over the weekend against the Texas Rangers. His six innings were his fewest of the season, but he allowed just four hits and struck out eight while walking three. It was the 5th time since 2009 that he went six or fewer in one of the three starts after a 125+ pitch outing and part of that may have been Jim Leyland pandering to the unnecessary outrage against the high pitch count for Verlander last Monday. He ended up with 115 pitches as the Rangers, arguably baseball’s best offense, ran up his count a bit by racking up 29 foul balls (25%) after he had yielded 56 (17% of his 340 pitches) in his first three starts.
His next start is Friday night in Yankees Stadium and then he draws the Royals again, this time at home. Verlander isn’t some run-of-the-mill third starter who needs to be coddled and immediately pulled once he hits the century mark. Of course, that doesn’t mean he should be used recklessly either, but I didn’t see anything reckless with letting him finish out the game in Kansas City last Monday. If you were one of those who saw it as egregious and now fear it will impact Verlander going forward, I would encourage you to relax. The data is on your side. Oh and the fact that Verlander is a gordita loving-robot (and proof) doesn’t hurt, either.