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Closing Time: What’s wrong with Justin Verlander?

Scott Pianowski
Roto Arcade

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Hug your struggling ace today (USAT)

Hey you, big fellah in the No. 35 jersey. Aren't you supposed to be Justin Verlander? This is not the cruise we signed up for.

The Tigers hold a three-game lead in the AL Central, but their 30-year-old ace hasn't been driving the story. Verlander absorbed an 11-hit, seven-run beating in Thursday's loss to Chicago, pushing his ratios to silly heights (3.99 ERA, 1.41 WHIP). His walk and strikeout rates haven't fallen apart, but they're both moving in the wrong direction. Verlander was the first or second pitcher off the board in most fantasy drafts back in March, but he doesn't grade out as a Top 75 option through the first 100 games of the year.

So what's wrong with Verlander? Throw a dart and pick a theory, there are plenty of them.

First and foremost, the stuff hasn't been the same in 2013. Verlander's fastball velocity is down to 92.7 mph, a strong number but far below his career average. More importantly, he's not getting the same lateral movement on his pitches (hat tip, Neil Weinberg), which is causing batters to do more damage than we're used to. You can call a .330 BABIP unlucky if you want, but take note of the 22.5 percent line-drive rate and the 11.5 percent infield-fly rate (a notable drop from last year's 15.4 number).

Some of the ERA estimators give Verlander a partial pass for his out-the-door ratios, but no one's giving him a full ride (3.42 FIP, 3.78 xFIP, 3.85 SIERA, 4.04 tERA). At some point, you are what you are. And as you'd expect with a struggling ace, the swinging-strike rate has fallen off significantly. Verlander is also having trouble getting batters to chase his stuff outside the zone.

Is Verlander pitching through a physical problem? Perhaps there's something minor at play, though injured pitchers generally can't dial up a fastball to the 92-93 range. Will a mechanical fix or two correct the lateral-movement problem? That's possible and perhaps likely, though you wonder why it hasn't been corrected this late in the season. Has the heavy workload from the last 4-5 seasons finally started to take a toll? I don't think we can dismiss that idea out of hand.

For the rest of the season, I'm willing to slot Verlander as a good-not-great pitcher. An ERA in the mid-3s is what I'm expecting, with a ratio around 1.20. It still makes him worth owning in any mixer, as a No. 2 or No. 3 option on most teams. But expecting a magical return to elite levels seems like wishcasting; a leap I'm not comfortable making.

Your witness, gamers. What's the most you'd move for Verlander right now? What's the least amount you'd accept for him in a trade? Let's try to get through this together

Brad Ziegler isn't getting pretty saves in the desert, but all's well that end's well - so long as the Diamondbacks are shaking hands at the end of the game, no one is going to complain. Ziegler allowed a ringing Nate Schierholtz double in the ninth inning Thursday (a blast that traveled well over 400 feet to dead center) and some other loud contact, but it still went down as a scoreless Chicago inning and Ziggy's fifth save of the year. Whatever gets you through the ninth.

Ziegler's game is all about pitching to contact - he has just 25 strikeouts over 47.1 innings. His control could be better, too - he's walked 13 men. But so long as the ball usually stays on the ground (a 74.7 percent clip, which is insane), he can handle the three-out role more often than not.

If you've fallen into Ziegler's recent run (four saves in two weeks), it might be a good time to lock in profits and sell now. At least, give it a shot. In sophisticated leagues, you're probably not getting a lot of Ziegler trade offers. But the save chase varies from league to league, and you never know what bullpen desperation might do to one of your opponents. Ziegler obviously holds the baton for the time being, but on my clipboard he's only got a 50-50 chance at keeping the gig the rest of the way. See what's out there.

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Japanese iceman (USAT)

Hisashi Iwakuma has taken a sad song and made it better, helped by a friendly schedule over the last couple of weeks. He's won three straight starts, taking down the Angels (a good offense) and two other patsies (Houston, Minnesota). He worked six scoreless innings against the Twins on Thursday (4 H, 1 BB, 9 K), posting a handful of bagels despite dreadful play from his infield (three errors, along with one other borderline call). Have some fun with the game tape.

Strength of schedule doesn't always explain the world away, but most of Iwakuma's slump seemed to be tied to a nasty run of opponents (Red Sox, Rangers in Arlington, two Oakland dates) along with some command isaues. He's righted the ship nicely in those last three turns (20 IP, 18 H, 5 ER, 3 UBB, 23 K), reminding us that he's a legitimate Top 15-20 starter for our fake baseball purposes. Would you take Iwakuma or Verlander the rest of the way? For me, that's an easy nod to the guy out west.

To be fair, the schedule is going to show its teeth again soon. Iwakuma has to work at Fenway Park next week, though Safeco Field comes calling after that (Toronto, Milwaukee). I've been bullish on Iwakuma all along and continue to be so, but I welcome your angles (and counter-arguments) in the comments.

The Dodgers were the bailout kings of 2012 (the Red Sox thank you) and to a lesser extent it's been the Yankees this year. Sure, they'll take Vernon Wells and that messy contract. And Alfonso Soriano looks like the next acquisition piece, though the Cubs are holding the check on this one.

The Soriano-to-New York deal is expected to be finalized this weekend; Soriano has already agreed to waive his no-trade rights. Back in the day this would be an obvious undertow gain for Soriano, but let's note the Cubs have actually outscored the Yankees in 2013. Wrigley Field is a better park for a right-handed batter, too.

Perhaps the whiff of a pennant race will do something to Soriano's game, albeit he was crushing it for the non-contending Cubs before the All-Star break. Hash it all together and this seems like a minor nick to Soriano's value, but nothing significant. If you want to call it lateral, I won't argue with you.

Speed Round: If you're playing the streaming game, Tyler Skaggs looks like a solid play for Saturday, at home against the Padres. He's ready to go in 93 percent of Yahoo! leagues . . . Eric Young Jr. (knee) is expected to return to action Friday . . . Michael Wacha might be recalled next week, with the Cardinals facing a doubleheader Tuesday against the Pirates . . . With Lance Berkman looking more and more like a 2013 casualty, the Rangers are probably in the market for more offense. Michael Young rumors are starting to surface, and I'd like to see them inquire about Alex Rios (especially with the Nelson Cruz uncertainty) . . . The Braves are one of the teams kicking the tires on Houston righty Bud Norris . . . The Brett Lawrie second-base experiment has been junked for the year; he'll stick at third for the final two months. You win again, defensive spectrum. Lawrie already earned his 2B tag in Yahoo! leagues, if that matters to you.

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