The curious case of Verlander’s reverse splits

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Justin Verlander's ineffectiveness against right-handed hitters seemed to begin when his average fastball velocity dipped.

Houston — It’s one of those baseball oddities and it’s been going on since 2013.

Justin Verlander, a right-handed pitcher, gets left-handed hitters out more readily than right-handed hitters. Reverse splits, they call it.

In his three starts this season, right-handers are hitting .371 with three home runs and a 1.138 OPS. Lefties are hitting .259 with no home runs and a .657 OPS.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who caught Verlander’s last start, was asked if he has any theories on this phenomenon.

“Yeah, but it’s a secret,” he said. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you. It’s something we are working on. It’s a process.”

The process has been ongoing now for four seasons. The reverse splits, Verlander’s issues with right-handed hitters, seemed to begin at the time when the average velocity on his fastball began to slip, from 95 mph in 2011 to 93 mph between 2013-14, to 91 today.

“I don’t have an answer for you,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “It’s been that way for a couple of years. Losing a little bit of velocity certainly works in the hitter’s favor. But I couldn’t tell you specifically why (he is better against lefties than righties).”

Pitching coach Rich Dubee either couldn’t or wouldn’t say, either.

“Not yet,” he said, when asked if he had a theory on why Verlander struggles against right-handers. “I need to watch him a little more.”

Ausmus disputes the notion that Verlander “struggles” against right-handed hitters.

In the loss to the Astros Saturday, right-handers were 7-for-19 while the lefties were 1-for-13.

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Go year to year:

•2013 — Righties hit .275 with a .739 OPS. Lefties hit .237, .658.

•2014 — Righties .321, .849; lefties, .239, .686.

•2015 — Righties .244, .650; lefties .216, .620.

•Career — Righties .249, .678; lefties, .232, .659.

But those aren’t the numbers that Ausmus uses in his analysis. He prefers a weighted on-base percentage, which is similar to OPS. It measures damage — home runs count more than triples, triples more than doubles, singles more than walks, etc.

“The last three years, his weighted is .315,” Ausmus said. “The midline is .310, so he is just slightly over the midline since 2012. It’s not like right-handers are killing him. It’s just that left-handers are doing much worse.”

It’s clear why Verlander has been effective against left-handers. His change-up and curveball are effective weapons against them. But what’s missing against right-handers?

When Verlander was pumping high-90s gas, he could blow away right-handed hitters. Even in those years, his slider and curveball were deadly against them. In 2011, right-handers hit .221 against his slider and .071 against his curve, according to Brooks Baseball.

In 2014, right-handers hit .313 against his fastball, .337 against his slider and .308 against his curve. In fairness, that was after he endured the core muscle surgery. It was the worst year of his career.

The slider was better last season — righties hit .218 against it. But it’s a pitch Verlander still struggles with.

“The slider would definitely be a pitch that’s tough, righty on righty,” Ausmus said. “But I don’t know if that’s the reason (for Verlander’s troubles against right-handed hitters).”

Does he need to refine his slider? Does he need, as Roger Clemens suggested to him this offseason, to develop a split-finger fastball, or a cutter? The Tigers aren’t saying.

Nor are they overly concerned about it, at this point.

“Why would we be?” Dubee said. “He’s a good pitcher. Some guys just have reverse splits. We’ll watch him and see how it goes.”

Twitter: @cmccosky