Fantasy owners can start worrying about Justin Verlander. Tigers fans can start fidgeting. The Detroit Tigers have no choice.
Verlander is in the second year of a then-record extension that will lock him up until 2019 for close to $200 million. Like last year, he’s starting off slowly. Because he’s one year older, and because he’s worse this year through June compared to 2013, it’s a valid question.
Verlander eventually picked up steam in September, and was indomitable for most of October.
Six days ago, Sports Illustrated writer Cliff Corcoran opined that Verlander was no longer an ace. Through 13 starts up until six days ago, Verlander had a 4.19 ERA / 3.82 FIP / 1.465 ERA, good for a 100 FIP / 103 ERA - generally making him a league average hurler.
Here’s some chilling facts — Verlander’s hits per nine innings have increased steadily going on four years. The pattern of decline carries on as his walks per nine innings has increased in the same span. Verlander once struck out 10.1 batters per nine innings en route to winning 19 games in the non-MVP and non-Cy Young year. Through 13 starts that number has plummeted to a career low 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings.
Consistent with the four-year pattern of decline, his adjusted ERA has gone from back-to-back and league leading 172 adjuster ERA in 2011 and 162 adjusted ERA in 2011. Consider those dominant, essentially making Verlander the best starting pitcher in the American League. In a down 2013, Verlander had a 121 adjusted ERA. That’s not bad, a number but — welp — Bartolo Colon’s (142 adjusted ERA) excellent but age-40 season last year was better. The performance was so scintillating the Mets gave Colon a two-year $20 million deal. In case you couldn’t tell, I wasn’t being sarcastic. But Colon made $3 million in 2013, taking a make-good deal after being busted for ‘roids. Verlander raked in $20 million, so there.
As Corcoran reported last week, Verlander had given up five runs or more in four of his past five starts. The rough stretch culminated in Corcoran’s harsh* conclusion after Verlander allowed six runs in a 7-3 loss to the Blue Jays.
*But probably fair, at least for this year, which is like, scary. Man where’s Doug Fister when you need him.
Man does Corcoran look smart, and every other baseball writer-slash-analyst who’ve come to the same conclusions about Verlander. Verlander’s diminished status has been a popular topic the past two weeks.
Wednesday night, it got even worst.
Verlander gave up seven runs in an 8-2 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. He worked 5.2 innings, allowing eight hits, including a home run from Jose Abreu, a double for Connor Gillespie and a triple from Adam Eaton. Verlander struck out six and walked four. Verlander had already thrown 122 pitches without getting out of the sixth inning. He was outpitched by John Danks, the definition of mediocre*. That’s the offense’s fault as much as Verlander, whose Wednesday night BABIP rose to .412, a fairly high and unlucky number compounded by a 52 percent ground ball rate. There were stupid cheapies, including a high fast ball to right that just plummeted before Torii Hunter could get there, and a knee-high liner by Gordon Beckham. The seven-run sixth inning was revealing though. Shit. He was cruising but for a second-inning home run up until then. The game was close. And then it wasn’t. For most of 2014, that’s been typical of Verlander.
*In a good, peak Aaron Cook kind of way.
"Verlander" and "route" have been on the same sentence in five out of six games, and that’s no longer a good thing.
His curveball’s a mess. The fastball has lost 2 mph to an average of 92.4 mph*, according to Pitch/Fx’s data.
*Brooks Baseball, however, has Verlander’s June average four seam velocity at about 95 mph.
But I think we’re obsessing over Verlander’s velocity. Yes, it’s been hittable. No, it’s not as slow as Mark Buehrle (83 mph) and Jered Weaver’s (87 mph) averages.
I think the lesson here is that Verlander’s human after all. He underwent abdominal surgery during the off-season, and may not be fully recovered. That doesn’t exonerate his dropping velocity, but it could be messing him up to the point of ineffectiveness. He’s certainly not the first starter to struggle with relying on more command. That list includes CC Sabathia, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana and Josh Beckett, and that’s just in the radar-gun era.
I’m not saying this is true for all baseball players. And velocity isn’t the end all of getting good results, or even racking up strikeouts. It certainly helps, especially if the heat has movement and command behind it. Brandon League, for example, throws hard, but was striking out less than 7 batters per nine innings — roughly league average. Felix Hernandez’s velocity has been dropping as well, and yet he not only racks up high strikeout rates and averages, but is also thriving like nothing happened.
I’m not ready to stick a fork in Verlander just yet.
Verlander is allowing a 16.7 ground rate, which is kind of funny because that’s a career high. The worrisome part is the drop in strikeout and walk rates. Verlander has struck out 22 percent of batters he’s faced in his career, and as recently as last year, sported a good 23 percent K rate. This year, that’s down to a puny 16 percent. His walk rate’s up to 9 percent, almost 2 percent higher than career norms. But then again his swinging strikes rate is along career lines.
Sometimes it’s bleak, sometimes it isn’t. But baseball players aren’t exactly robots. Their careers aren’t lineal. Off years happen. Off-half seasons happen. Shit happens.
Verlander may have likely peaked, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be better than the Jeff Francis mirror-image we see before us today.