If you read my articles all winter and listened to the VEB podcast, you’ll know that I was high on Drew VerHagen coming into the season. But don’t worry - I’m not going to take a victory lap. That would be disingenuous since I was also high on Jordan Hicks. So, hey, I guess you win some and you lose some.
There’s still time for Hicks to turn things around however unlikely that seems as he’s only thrown 5 2⁄3 innings so far this year. But that’s the last thing I’ll say about Hicks because this article is all about Drew VerHagen, a reliever who has completely turned things around after a catastrophic 2022 season. And, actually, I want to apologize because I lied in that last sentence. I do have one more thing to say about Hicks. Rather, I have a comparison to make that involves Hicks.
I remember the anger directed towards Drew VerHagen’s performances last season and that reminds me a bit of the anger directed towards Jordan Hicks’ performances this season. VerHagen turned it around and Hicks can too, again, however unlikely that may be. A commonality between the two is that they both have good stuff. That’s why I never completely wrote off Drew VerHagen and I won’t write off Jordan Hicks even though I don’t want him anywhere near a lead of 4 runs or less at the moment.
So with that little aside (and perhaps unnecessary discussion of Jordan Hicks) out of the way, let’s dive into the meat of this article. Drew VerHagen has made quite a few changes to his arsenal and even his mechanics that have me excited for his future in the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen.
In case you weren’t aware, Baseball Savant completely revamped their pitch classifications prior to the start of the season. Think a pitcher threw a slider? Well that slider could be classified as a slider, a cutter, a slurve, or a sweeper now. I’m just waiting for the day when the “slutter” gets introduced as an official pitch classification, solely for the jokes that can then be made. And then if Cooper Hjerpe can develop a slutter, my life will be complete.
This knowledge is necessary because last year Drew VerHagen threw a slider. Or, at least, it was classified as a slider. Now he throws a sweeper and a cutter which are separate pitches. After the reclassification on Baseball Savant, VerHagen’s slider was also separated into these 2 categories for the 2022 season, but only 3.1% of his arsenal was made up by his cutter. And his cutter looks different now so I’m seriously questioning if his 2022 “cutter” classification is accurate.
That’s why I’m willing to refer to his cutter as “a new cutter”. Because it’s either new or the shape is so different that it might as well be a new pitch. And that’s significant because it’s his second most used pitch so far this season, being thrown 28.8% of the time.
Have the results been great? No. He’s allowed a .555 wOBA against the pitch, but keep in mind that the sample is still tiny so that’s damage done from only 4 singles and a double. The pitch has also drawn a 46.2% chase rate and a 26.3% whiff rate, so if we’re going to look at small sample sizes, then we should look at both sides.
I have faith in the pitch and let me tell you why. For a cutter that travels at 87.2 mph, it has 70% more sweep than average at 5.5 inches. To be honest, this looks more like a standard slider than a cutter to me, but what do I know?
There is a 0% chance that anyone can convince me that’s a cutter and not a slider. But I digress. The lines between the different pitch classifications are so blurred now that it hardly matters. And I don’t really care about what we call the pitch; I care about what it does and how effective it is.
And this is a pitch that I think can be effective. A lot obviously depends on command but I generally like hard sliders (I refuse to call it a cutter) that are thrown with a good amount of sweep. And stuff+ likes it too with the pitch registering at a solid 103.
This is a pitch that VerHagen has trusted enough in the early going to make it a foundational piece of his arsenal and I do think that it will get good results over a larger sample. It’s essentially a new pitch for the right-hander and it’s one that I expect to help him this season.
The increased cutter/slider usage has come at the expense of another pitch - his curveball. And that’s good because his cutter/slider is probably better than his curveball and I’ll dive into why that is later in this piece. It’s been a drastic change, though, as VerHagen has completely dropped his curveball and now is essentially throwing 2 fastballs (a sinker and a four-seamer) and 2 sliders (a true slider and a sweeper) with some changeups mixed in.
And that’s good because his sliders are his 2 best pitches. The cutter/slider is a solid offering but VerHagen’s sweeper has the potential to be a real bat misser. Averaging 80.9 mph with over 15 inches of sweep and 45 inches of drop, both of which are above average for sweepers thrown at that velocity, it’s no wonder the pitch has a 123 stuff+ grade according to Eno Sarris’ model.
It’s still too early to tell how the pitch will fare in a larger sample and stuff+ isn’t everything but the pitch passes both the eye test and the metric test.
I like what VerHagen has done with his arsenal to focus on two different versions of his slider and his two fastballs. Of the two fastballs, VerHagen used his sinker more last year, but he had essentially an even split between the two. This year that’s changed as VerHagen is not only using his four-seamer more but he’s also using his sinker much less.
This is one change that I haven’t been able to completely get behind yet as I think VerHagen may be focusing on the wrong fastball.
I prefer his sinker to his four-seamer and the reason for that is simple - he doesn’t have good spin efficiency on his fastball. It’s hard to get good riding life on a fastball without spin efficiency which is why pitchers that don’t get a lot of it are generally (note: this isn’t true in every case) better suited to throw sinkers as opposed to four-seamers.
At only 77% spin efficiency, I wouldn’t be shocked if VerHagen’s sinker ends up being the more effective pitch, yet it’s only 4th in usage right now at 12.7% while his four-seamer is 1st at 33.9%.
To be honest, neither pitch has an incredibly impressive movement profile so it may be a moot point anyway. And there are also reasons to believe that a four-seamer focused approach is correct because of the rest of the pitches in VerHagen’s arsenal.
Both his cutter/slider and his sweeper get a lot of drop which means that they likely tunnel more effectively with a four-seam fastball, and specifically a four-seamer located up in the zone, and not a sinker.
I also want to point out that VerHagen has targeted the arm side almost exclusively with his sinker this year and took a similar approach with the pitch last year. So, if he doesn’t feel comfortable taking the pitch to the other side of the plate, then he is likely better off throwing a four-seamer which he’s shown an ability and willingness to throw to both sides of the plate.
To summarize, I still think VerHagen’s sinker is probably better in isolation but no pitch works in isolation. The four-seamer may indeed be the better choice due to better tunneling possibilities and better command to both sides of the plate, but only time will tell if one fastball proves to be more effective than the other. I know that’s something I’ll be looking to see.
Pitch mix isn’t the only thing that’s changed for Drew VerHagen. The right-hander has adjusted his mechanics too, likely in an effort to improve his control after walking 13.2% of the batters he faced last year.
The most noticeable example can be seen below. You should notice that VerHagen’s leg lift isn’t as aggressive this year and his front leg doesn’t come up as high.
Here’s what his mechanics looked like in 2022:
And here’s what they looked like in 2023:
It’s a bit of a subtle change but it likely helps him be more in control of his body. And the early results have been great with him walking just 1 batter in his first 7 2⁄3 innings. That’s not the only tweak, though.
Last year, when I wrote about Drew VerHagen I mentioned that he had different release points for his different pitches and that was potentially giving hitters a cue as to what’s coming. That’s changed this year. Or, at least, his release points are now closer together.
Last year the biggest difference in vertical release point was between his curveball (6.88 ft) and his sinker (6.59 ft). That’s a difference of 0.29 feet. To make that clearer, it’s a difference of about 3.5 inches. The biggest difference in horizontal release point was also between his curveball and his sinker (which makes sense) and measured over 4.5 inches.
I don’t think it’s crazy to hypothesize that a hitter could pick up on such a difference.
This year, though, things are different. The biggest difference in vertical release points is just 1.3 inches and the biggest difference in horizontal release point is just 1.8 inches. That’s a huge change for VerHagen and I have two things to point out.
The first is that he’s stopped throwing his curveball and since that was the pitch with which he came most over the top, it makes sense that the upper and lower bounds of his release point would come closer together. That’s why I think dropping the curveball fro,m his arsenal could give VerHagen a huge benefit. But the other reason is that he has simply has found a more consistent release point across his entire arsenal.
These two tweaks could play a role in improving VerHagen’s control and increasing his deception, both of which are welcome changes.
Now that you’ve read this entire piece, I want to say that I’m probably insane for writing a whole article on a reliever, and much less 7 2⁄3 innings of a reliever, considering how notoriously volatile relievers can be. Even in this small sample size, though, Drew VerHagen has made some notable changes that I think make him a better pitcher even if he doesn’t maintain his current pace.
And VerHagen’s current pace is crazy. He currently has a 1.63 FIP and is tied for the lead among Cardinals relievers with his 0.3 fWAR. Even the biggest believers in VerHagen probably weren’t expecting this level of early dominance.
It would be crazy to expect VerHagen to continue pitching this well, but it’s not crazy to expect him to pitch well this season. I said it in the winter and I’ll stick with it now. His stuff flashed last year even when he struggled and this year, I think he’s made the necessary changes to his pitch mix and his mechanics in order to let his stuff play effectively at the major league level.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have an amazing Tuesday.