Justin Verlander's fastball has been a hot topic, as the once-untouchable offering has gradually lost some zip (his average fastball velocity had dropped from 95 MPH in 2011 to 94.6 MPH in 2012 and 93.9 MPH in 2013) and been lashed into the gaps more often (batters slugged .358 in '11, .389 in '12 and .442 in '13). One little-discussed aspect of Verlander's fastball woes is that he's not getting as many called strikes on heaters thrown outside of the strike zone. That, in turn, is leading to more free passes for opposing hitters.
A few years ago, umps were quite generous to Verlander when batters took a fastball located off the plate. Verlander's called strike rate on fastballs thrown out of the strike zone was 16.4 percent in 2011, well above the 12 percent major league average for right-handed starting pitchers. Among righty starters, only Livan Hernandez, Doug Fister, Shaun Marcum, Ryan Vogelsong, Dan Haren, Colby Lewis and Roy Halladay got more calls on out-of-zone fastballs.
Since then, Verlander hasn't been so fortunate. His called strike rate on out-of-zone fastballs fell to 15.1 percent in 2012, and sits at a league average 11.9 percent so far in 2013. The main difference is on arm-side fastballs -- umps aren't calling as many strikes on pitches thrown well inside to righty batters, or off the outside corner to lefties.
Verlander's called strike rate on out-of-zone fastballs, 2011
Verlander's called strike rate on out-of-zone fastballs, 2012
Verlander's called strike rate on out-of-zone fastballs, 2013
Verlander's declining called strike rate on out-of-zone fastballs is made more puzzling by his decline in velocity. In general, there's an inverse relationship between fastball velocity and called strike rate on out-of-zone fastballs -- the slower you throw, the more called strikes you get. Out-of-zone fastballs thrown by righty starting pitchers between 90-92 MPH, for example, have a called strike rate of 12.4 percent over the past three years. That called strike rate dips to 11 percent for fastballs thrown between 93-94 MPH, and just 8.4 percent for fastballs thrown 95 MPH or harder. You'd think that a softer-tossing Verlander would get more called strikes, not fewer.
While the change in Verlander's called strike rate on fastballs thrown off the plate might not seem huge, those extra balls do add up. The difference between his 2011 and 2013 called strike rates on out-of-zone fastballs amounts to 20 additional balls thrown, which partially explains why his walk rate has climbed in recent years (from 5.9 percent of batters faced in 2011 to 6.3 percent in 2012 and 8.3 percent in 2013). When Verlander toes the rubber against the A's tonight, keep an eye on his off-the-plate heat -- the ump's generosity could be the difference between strike three and ball four.