Twitter can be a rough, unforgiving place for baseball players. Their mentions stink with fans using the direct line to bombard them with criticism, name-calling, and personal attacks. Players can't reply in tone, of course, so they can ignore, or they can reply with positivity—as Jake Arrieta did, three years ago, in an exchange culminating in a now-legendary tweet.
Arrieta, then with the Orioles, received a tweet from a stranger on the internet telling him “you f***ing suck” and “go back to the minors.” It was April 21, 2013 and Arrieta had just allowed five runs in four innings against the Dodgers to raise his ERA on the season to 6.63 and his career ERA to 5.41.
He was no doubt frustrated and unhappy with how his career was going at age 27. But instead of lashing out (with cause) at a person who had lashed out at him (without cause), Arrieta killed him with kindness. Well, mostly. Arrieta replied: “Agreed. Gotta be better. If we see each other in person, you should avoid me.” That could be viewed as a threat, but it could also just be a factual statement made to a person who said “you f***ing suck.”
After a bit more back and forth Arrieta totally changed the tone of the conversation to the point that the same person who kicked things off by saying “you f***ing suck” was telling him things like “you have great stuff” and “good luck to you.” He even got the guy to admit “maybe I have anger issues.” All of which is interesting in itself, but my favorite part is Arrieta promising,
@CWilliams2599 I will be a dominant starter. Wait for it..
— Jake Arrieta (@JArrieta34) April 24, 2013
Since that Twitter exchange, Arrieta has a 45-15 record and 2.26 ERA in 522 innings spread over 80 starts. He's the National League’s reigning Cy Young winner, which would be impressive enough in a world without Clayton Kershaw. I’m sure there are plenty of instances in which a player responds to criticism on Twitter by promising improvement that never arrives, but I choose to focus on this specific case because … I dunno, the whole thing makes me smile.
Justin Verlander got off to an ugly start this season, posting a 6.49 ERA in 35 innings through his first six outings. When combined with his injury-shortened 2015 season and a career-worst 2014 season, his struggles caused some fans to turn his Twitter mentions to rot. Verlander took the Arrieta approach of calling out some “trolls” personally, but also had a message for all of his followers: “I’m going to dominate soon! I’m close. Doubt me if you want. We'll see.”
I'm going to dominate soon! I'm close. Doubt me if you want… We'll see. #gotigers
— Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) May 4, 2016
He tweeted that on May 3, following a start in which he allowed seven runs against the Indians. Since then Verlander has thrown 45 innings with a 2.01 ERA and 52/10 K/BB ratio while holding opponents to a .161 batting average. Verlander’s overall ERA is down to 3.97—with a 3.54 FIP and a 2.85 DRA—and his strikeout rate of 9.6 per nine innings is the second-best of his career, behind only his original breakout 2009 season.
It’s not quite as dramatic as Arrieta's rebirth, but Verlander appears to have gotten his career back on track after two straight discouraging seasons—and the turnaround can be timed to the Arrieta-like proclamation on Twitter. He’s completed at least seven innings and recorded at least seven strikeouts in six consecutive starts, which is the second-longest such streak of his career, behind one stretch from his Cy Young- and MVP-winning 2011.
He’s done it while adding velocity. Not so long ago Verlander was one of the hardest-throwing starters in baseball and was particularly adept as maintaining his velocity deep into starts, with his radar gun readings frequently peaking well past his 100th pitch. As a 33-year-old with 2,200 innings under his belt those days are gone, but after seeing his four-seam fastball dip in velocity every year from 2009 to 2014 he’s at least paused the decline.
- 96.3 mph – 2009
- 96.1 mph – 2010
- 95.8 mph – 2011
- 95.2 mph – 2012
- 94.5 mph – 2013
- 93.3 mph – 2014
- 93.5 mph – 2015
- 93.0 mph – pre-tweet 2016
- 94.1 mph – post-tweet 2016
That may not seem like much—and certainly pitchers add and subtract one mph on a start-by-start or even month-by-month basis all the time—but Verlander has also thrown his curveball harder, generated more swinging strikes and strikeouts, and shut down hitters like he hasn’t in years. He’s throwing harder, he looks stronger, and his results are fantastic. Plus, the timing and tone of his Twitter message made me wonder if he had a specific reason to feel so confident about a turnaround.
Perhaps it was just a formerly great pitcher betting on himself, or maybe he’d been feeling particularly good in recent side sessions, but here’s a possible explanation that seems to stand out: Verlander was gaining confidence in a planned change in approach and, right around the time of his tweet, started throwing a cut fastball. He tinkered with it early in the season after previously never throwing it at all, using the cutter a couple times per start.
Then, right around the time of his Twitter proclamation, Verlander began using the cutter nearly 20 times per start. And so far it’s been a dominant offering, holding opponents to a .156 batting average, zero home runs, and lots of weak contact. By mixing in another high-velocity pitch, but with much more movement, the cutter also makes his bread-and-butter four-seamer appear even faster.
So perhaps his confidence despite an ugly first month of the season was due to knowing he was about to unleash an 89-mph cutter with big-time movement in tandem with a rejuvenated four-seamer. Toss in better health coming off a year in which he threw only 133 innings compared to his usual 220, and it all adds up to a vastly improved outlook.
“I’m going to dominate soon! I’m close. Doubt me if you want. We'll see.”
He was right. The things you learn on Twitter.
Thank you for reading
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I'm glad it worked out for him.