By Matthew Kory
To get an idea what facing a great changeup is like, here's what you do. Step into a batting cage, the fastest you can find. Stand as close to the pitching machine as you can stomach. Swing at a few pitches. Now, stand far behind the plate as you can get. Swing at a pitch. Chances are good you'll swing well before the pitch arrives. That should give you a rough idea of what it's like to experience a drastic change in velocity.
The thing that throws hitters off about a good changeup, though, isn't just the speed, but what scouts call "arm action." If a pitcher throws a fastball, throwing his next pitch with a much slower arm motion can tip the batter off that a changeup is coming. But when both pitches are thrown at identical arm speeds, that can mess with a hitter's timing, resulting in some ugly swings and misses. All of a sudden, you're waiting forever for a pitch that feels like it should have arrived last week.
So here's the thing about Justin Verlander: he can throw you two fastballs -- and they can be as much as 14 mph apart.
As a hitter, how do you deal with something like that? Well, fortunately for hitters everywhere, Verlander doesn't throw a 100 mph fastball followed by an 86 mph fastball. (If he has, I couldn't find it.) Mostly what he does is ramp up for the occasion. Granted, this is different than a changeup, but we're still dealing with a huge difference in pitch speed -- and not for two different pitches, but for the same pitch.
Pitchers who just air it out -- throwing as hard as they possibly can for as long as their bodies will let them -- eventually get tired, and their pitches slow down. This is grounded in the obvious idea that the faster the pitch travels, the harder it is for the batter to hit. That's true in the abstract -- like if you can imagine a 1,000 mph fastball versus a 56 mph fastball -- but in reality, nobody really throws hard enough to make such a significant difference. So for guys who come out and just peg it, as their pitch count rises, their velocity falls, usually by little bits at a time. It isn't unusual for a guy to lose two to three mph or more on his fastball over a few innings, and the end result is a pitcher who has to get some of the most important outs in the game with diminished stuff.
So back to Verlander, now 30. He throws silly hard, up over 100 sometimes, but he doesn't heave it as hard as he possibly can all the time. The radar gun tells the story of a pitcher who knows he can get hitters out at 90 mph, a pitcher who understands the importance of conserving energy, and a pitcher who knows an extra 5 mph on a fastball at an important point in a game could be the difference between victory and defeat.
The excellent Brooks Baseball has a graphic that shows this maybe best of all. It's a graph of Verlander's maximum and minimum velocity by inning this season.
You can see the huge difference in pitch speed, and remember, these are all fastballs. The 3rd inning is particularly brutal: Verlander hit both 100 and 88. You can also see that by the end of the game, his ability (or desire) to keep the pitches slower has dissipated, though it's still there.
This is, of course, not a new idea, and Justin Verlander certainly is not the first to do it. Other pitchers attempt variations on this theme. The thing that makes Verlander so special among them is simply that he throws so hard. Usually, when someone can throw as hard as Verlander, the temptation is to make use of that immediately. Who doesn't want to blow the first batter away with a 100 mph fastball? Everybody does! But Verlander understands the value of not doing it.
Someone who doesn't throw as hard may try the same thing, but the difference in pitch speeds won't be so large. Ramping up from 88 to 92 isn't quite the same as from 88 to 101.
To be clear, this isn't necessarily something that contributes to Verlander's success in the most direct sense. Looking at Verlander's career by innings, his ERA dips and dives all around. It's lowest in the 7th, then the 2nd, then the 9th, then the 3rd, and so on. And yet, since 2006, when Verlander became a rotation regular with Detroit, he's thrown the second-most innings in baseball, behind only CC Sabathia. And if you look up Sabathia on Brooks Baseball, you can see that he's (almost) right there with Verlander in terms of speed differential.
Throwing seven or eight innings normally requires over 100 pitches, and there isn't a pitcher who has ever lived (Old Hoss Radbourn doesn't qualify) who can sustain upper-90's fastballs over the course of an entire start, and then repeat that over a season's worth of starts. You have to dole out the speed as needed.
Last year, I wrote a piece about Daniel Nava at Baseball Prospectus. It was, of course, hilarious and poignant, but it was also about an at-bat that Nava had against Verlander. I was struck then by Verlander's ability to ramp up his speed, not just in that inning, but in that single at-bat. I'll be a jerk and quote myself:
It's been said that if hitting is timing, then pitching is disrupting timing. Watching Justin Verlander work, you can see the truth in that statement. The man possesses a bionic arm, but he is also smart enough to know when to throw crazy hard. If you can get guys out at 92 mph, why throw 100?
That 4th inning, Verlander threw one fastball to the second batter of the inning, Jarrod Saltalamacchia. It was 92 mph. He threw one fastball to the third batter of the inning, Mike Aviles. It was 95 mph. He threw three fastballs to the fourth batter of the inning, Scott Podsednik. They were 96, 96, and 98 mph. [Nick] Punto got two fastballs, the first at 97 mph, the second at 98.
That's called ramping up. As the circumstances grew more ominous, Verlander made catching up to his fastball that much harder for opposing hitters. Then came the Nava at-bat. I've spent the better part of 1,000 words harping on Verlander's ability to throw super-hard when he needs to. This was a time when he needed to -- an important at-bat, not just an important pitch. So what did he do? He threw at the following speeds: 98, 100, 80 (a curveball), 98, 99, and 100. The end result wasn't what Verlander wanted (a double down the left field line), but the point is that it wasn't a 100 mph pitch in a sea of low 90's. As the inning went on, Verlander threw harder. As the game went on, Verlander threw harder.
In this, the age of increasing pitching specialization, a pitcher that can give a team innings is valuable, but one who can throw innings while maintaining velocity through the late innings, ramping up even more when the situation warrants, is downright impressive. It's that conservation of effort, the ability to think and adjust to the situation, that makes Justin Verlander especially formidable.
Go back to the batting cage. You've been hitting against the Fast machine for a bit. Your arms are tired. Your hands ache. You've got one more token left. You put it in. All of a sudden, without switching cages, you're facing the Very Very Fast machine. Good luck.
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Matthew Kory is an author at Baseball Prospectus, a writer at SB Nation's Over The Monster Red Sox blog, a stay-at-home dad, and the author of the books "How Dare I: An Unauthorized Autobiography" and "The Best Things In Life Are Stolen Which Is Why You Just Paid For This Book," neither of which will ever be published. He lives in Portland, Ore.