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June 20, 2014

Raising Aces

A Tale of Two Aces

by Doug Thorburn

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Just 15 months ago, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander were neck-and-neck in any discussion of the top pitchers in the game. The Motor City right-hander owned the American League, and the west coast southpaw ruled over the senior circuit, with each having finished first and second in their respective Cy Young races from 2011–12. They entered the 2013 campaign as the unquestioned aces of competitive clubs, poised to stage another season as kings of the mound, but their careers have taken dramatically different trajectories since then.

Kershaw has continued his reign of dominance, hauling in another Cy in 2013 and squashing opposing hitters thus far this season, culminating in a career-best pitching performance on Wednesday. On the other side of the coin is Verlander, who tumbled from his perch last season as he battled to find consistency for the first five months. He was able to right the ship in time for the Tigers' playoff run, but his late-season success has deserted him in 2014, and his current run of futility has seen him sink to new depths of performance.

The disparity between these two pitchers has never been greater than it is right now, so let's examine where they stand as we near the halfway mark of the 2014 season.

The Storm Before the Calm
Velocity tends to steal the limelight in any discussion of Verlander, but the oohs and ahs that used to accompany his ability to add heat late in games have since been replaced by fears that he’s lost his greatest weapon. However, the hype surrounding his loss of velocity has been a bit overblown.

It's true that his average velo is on a five-year downward trend, having lost about 2.3 ticks since his 2009 peak, but Verlander has never dropped more than 0.6 mph from one season to the next, and his current average of 94.2 is still well above par. He has turned up the dials recently, averaging greater than 95 mph in three of his last four starts, but the hotter readings on the radar gun have coincided with greater damage on the scoreboard.

After giving up three or fewer runs in each of his first eight games of the season, Verlander has now surrendered five-plus earned runs in six of his past seven starts. The BUS count matches his total from his tumultuous campaign of 2013 and exceeds the number of blow-up starts that he posted in the 2011 and 2012 seasons combined. Manager Brad Ausmus has received some flack for leaving Verlander in too long, particularly in his last two starts, in which the right-hander has been thwarted by big innings under mounting pitch counts. Is that blame a simple case of revisionist history, or should Verlander have been given the hook at earlier points in the game? His raw velocity has not been a problem recently, so why have all of Verlander's 2014 stats suddenly gone south for the summer?

As a mechanics guy first and foremost, I always study the delivery when evaluating a pitcher's performance, and prior to watching Verlander, I had a hunch that his problems were similar to the issues that cropped up around this time last year. Specifically, I wondered if he was again using a skewed angle of kinetic energy en route to the plate, fighting against the invisible wall that pushed him to the glove-side last season. As it turned out, the delivery that I saw was short of his peak efficiency from a couple years ago, and his line to the plate was a tad inconsistent, but the invisible wall was not nearly the imposing force that it was during part of last season. It was a similar story with his posture and arm slot, which fell short of Verlander's peak mechanics yet hardly created cause for concern.

The only notable difference was Verlander’s lack of fastball command, a result of subtle timing issues that manifested early in the delivery. Verlander separates his hands in conjunction with his burst toward the plate as he clears max leg lift, coordinating his limbs in a pattern analogous to those of the hitters whom Ryan Parker examined in a recent article, but the right-hander's timing of hand-break was often out of sync with his second gear of momentum. The difference is subtle, but a misfire of a tenth of a second can be the difference between a pitch on the black and one that catches too much of the dish.

Fastball command has been the most glaring weakness for Verlander this season, as his heater has been knocked around the yard for a .307 average and .471 slugging percentage, including six of the eight homers that he has allowed on the year. Seven of the eight have come in his last seven starts, after he allowed just one bomb across his first eight games. His tendency to elevate fastballs this season is highlighted in his heat maps; compare his fastball locations from 2014 (left) to those of 2012 (right):


Elevated fastballs carve the quickest path to fan souvenirs, and Verlander has suffered those consequences over the past six weeks. Most of the hits against him in each of the last two starts were mild knocks that happened to find some fairway, with opposing runners rounding the bases as if on a carousel while baseballs trickled through the infield. The right-hander has been somewhat unlucky, in the sense that even those pitches that were well-executed resulted in poor outcomes during select open-floodgate innings. But the greatest damage was of his own undoing, such as this fastball that missed by a foot above its target, allowing Omar Infante to lift it out of the yard.

Thus far, Verlander has had a penchant for getting breaking balls dirty or leaving fastballs above the zone, and opposing batters haven’t been biting with the same frequency as in the past. Poor command generally leads to favorable counts for opposing batters, allowing them to sit on heat, which can have a snowball effect on the fastball's effectiveness. Yet despite the statistical red flags, the underlying elements of his struggles suggest that he can right the ship with minor adjustments. The problem with inconsistent timing is the exceedingly narrow margin for error, such that even minor adjustments can be a significant hurdle to overcome for any pitcher. The ability to find mechanical consistency will dictate Verlander's pitch command moving forward, and if he regains his rhythm, his entire arsenal will play up. Somewhere within him still lies the upside to be one of the league's top pitchers.

Anatomy of a Near-Perfect Game
Clayton Kershaw's pitching performance on Wednesday night was one for the ages. The only thing standing between him and perfection was Hanley Ramirez's two-base throwing error to start the sixth inning, and Kershaw established a new career-high by racking up 15 strikeouts. Daniel Rathman had a great breakdown of the game in yesterday's WYNTK, but I couldn't help but chime in with a few notes after the game's top pitcher had the best night of his career.

Let's go to the bullets:

*Kershaw finished 14 of his 15 strikeouts with breaking balls, with eight via the slider and six coming with the curve. Wilin Rosario had an especially rough day, going 0-for-3 with three strikeouts, two of which came on Bugs Bunny curves that froze the Rockie catcher with a look of hopelessness in his eyes.

*Kershaw's pitch command was off a bit versus the first four batters of the game, as he missed spots with fastballs as well as breaking pitches, and even the slider that caught Cory Dickerson looking for the first K of the contest was a pitch that missed the mark. But Kershaw flipped the switch in the second inning with pristine command, and he had his tractor beam trained on A.J. Ellis's glove for the rest of the ball game.

*His fastball velocity was particularly impressive, sitting 92-94 and touching 96 mph into the late innings. When he has fastball precision like he did on Wednesday, it seems almost unfair that Kershaw can also drop curves with 20-mph velocity differentials. The curve is a bit loopy, leaving the hand at a higher trajectory than the fastball, but his hammer has so much depth that batters come up empty even when they see the pitch coming. The southpaw's slider is just the opposite, leaving the hand with the same trajectory and arm speed as the heater and fooling hitters and generating fastball swings as the ball slides to the back foot of a right-handed batter.

*Kershaw spent almost no time in the stretch, but something occurred to me while watching him pitch with Dickerson on second base in the sixth. The lefty has a very low leg lift from the stretch that is nearly a slide step, and—even though this is the point where I usually go into a rant about the futility of the slide step, especially for a left-hander—it actually works well with his particular mechanical signature. He has an odd-looking, three-speed pace of momentum during his phases of lift and stride, which entails a strong move toward the plate during lift followed by a complete halt of forward progress as the leg comes down, only to initiate a late burst toward the target as the front foot nears the ground. Kershaw keeps the foot gliding over the mound during this late burst in a phase that is very consistent with his stretch delivery, allowing him to find a more repeatable timing pattern throughout the game. I wouldn't necessarily teach a pitcher to mimic Kershaw's unusual delivery or his stretch technique, but the strategy works very well for the left-hander now that he has mastered his motion.

*One of the most entertaining parts of watching Kershaw pitch is his style of attacking hitters. He will throw just about any pitch in any count, and though he ups the ante of curves when he has the platoon disadvantage, Kersh is a threat to uncork any one of his three plus-plus pitches to any player at any time. With a mid-80s slider and the mid-70s curve, the lefty can make great use of Effective Velocity by commanding his pitches all around the zone, allowing him to own the chess match with opposing batters.

*In the second inning of this historic game, Vin Scully noted that home plate umpire Greg Gibson was also the blue behind the dish when Randy Johnson threw his perfect game in 2004. Maybe Scully notes that fact any time that Gibson is behind the plate for a game, or perhaps it was particularly relevant given the master craftsman who was on the mound for the home team, but the wheels of perfection were put into motion very early in Wednesday's game. Leaving early to beat the traffic was not an option for Dodger Nation on June 18, 2014.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

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