COMMENTARY | When the Detroit Tigers broke from spring training, fans knew two things about their team: The lineup would produce a lot of runs, and Justin Verlander would pitch lights-out. But, as spring sets and the season of summer is upon us, we take stock.
While the lineup has indeed produced a lot of runs (373, tied for third in the majors with the Colorado Rockies), Verlander has been anything but "lights out."
So what is to blame? What has happened to the 2011 AL Cy Young and MVP? Is his skill set in decline, or has he run across a prolonged stretch of bad luck? I give you five reasons not to panic over Justin Verlander:
1. His Fastball Velocity Is Down, but He's Using More Offspeed Pitches
In Verlander's rookie season (2006), it was his fastball that attracted many fans. His running fastball would touch 100 mph several times a game, while the average velocity, according to FanGraphs, sat at 95.1 mph. But, in 2013, it sits at 92.6 mph. This has been a major point of contention for his detractors. And while it should be noted that he has almost completely abandoned the two-seam fastball, it should be pointed out that Verlander has increasingly relied more on his three offspeed pitches.
In 2006, two-thirds of his pitches were fastballs, with the other third split evenly between his changeup and curve ball. Now, just over half of his pitches (55.4%) are fastballs, while the rest are offspeed. While his changeup frequency is in line with the first few years of his career, he has begun using more breaking pitches.
Since 2009, when he introduced batters to his slider, its frequency has gone up every year, and the right-to-left breaking pitch is now being thrown 13% of the time. And while it has reduced the number of curve balls he has thrown, it has increased the frequency of his changeup (10% in 2009, 19% in 2013).
So what is the impact of all of this?
2: He Is Posting a Career-High Strikeout Rate
Verlander is striking out a career-high 10.2 batters per nine innings (K/9), which is a batter and a half above his career average, and a full batter above his 2012 rate. The tradeoff is that he is now walking one more batter per nine innings (BB/9) compared to his 2012 rate, and a half batter over his career average. But that is to be understood, as breaking pitches are harder to locate than fastballs.
What is likely going on is an adjustment to his pitching style so that he can pitch effectively into his 30s. Verlander is no spring chicken, this being his eighth full year in the majors. He has seen high pitch counts, high innings counts, deep postseason runs, and just turned 30 this past offseason. He is set to make $28 million every season from 2015-2019. If he continues to throw blazing heat two-thirds of the time, his arm will start to wear down over the next few years (see: Halladay, Roy).
Think of this as an adjustment period. Just like another Tiger: Tiger Woods, who would adjust his swing, struggle for a few months while he figured things out, and come back better than before.
So if his strikeout rate is up, why are his ERA and WHIP up?
3: He Has a Career-High BABIP
This one is all about luck! Verlander's batting average on balls hit into play (BABIP) is .347, which is 60 points higher than his career average, and over 110 points higher than his 2011 MVP season. The thing about BABIP is that it tends to normalize to a player's career average. So it appears that Verlander has just been getting unlucky. If not for the unusually high BABIP, his ERA would likely be a full run lower, and among the top 10 in the AL.
But he was the surest pitcher in baseball, right?
4. Even Elite Pitchers Have Rough Stretches
Think of some of the best pitchers in the last 50 years, and names like Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Roy Halladay come to mind. But even the very best have their troubles.
Clemens, over a 13-season stretch from 1986 to 1998, put up nine seasons with an ERA under 3.00, but also two seasons with an ERA over 4.00 (1993 and 1995).
In 23 seasons, from 1970 to 1992, Ryan averaged a 3.16 ERA, striking out 5,437 batters in the process. But he posted high ERAs, as well -- 3.97 in 1971, 3.72 in 1978, 3.80 in 1985, and 3.72 in 1992. The "Ryan Express" rebounded to have another fine season, each time, save for 1992-93 when he was reaching the end of his Hall of Fame career.
"Doc" Halladay, on the other hand, has a few outliers in his otherwise stellar career. In the 10 seasons from 2002-2011, he put together a 2.97 ERA but posted a 4.20 ERA in 2004 and a 3.71 ERA in 2007.
My point is, elite pitchers are not elite all the time. They are elite, not infallible. But why shouldn't Tigers fans panic?
5. It's Still June, and Verlander Pitches for the Tigers
The Tigers have a 3 1/2-game lead in the AL (Comedy) Central. And while every team is within 10 games of first place, no other team in the division has the talent to fully compete with the Tigers. Remember, the Tigers' rotation, even sans Verlander, is still the best in the division, and they have the best offensive player on the planet manning the "hot corner" in Miguel Cabrera.
Oh yeah, and it's still June! "JV" has three months to complete his adjustment before the playoffs start. He has been a spectacular pitcher each of the last four seasons, and two months of poor results should not dissuade you.
So relax, Tigers fans, and focus on the real problem: Why can't their bullpen protect a lead?
Kyle Schafer has been a sportswriter for seven years, writing for The Michigan Journal, and is a "fantasy connoisseur."
- Sports & Recreation
- Justin Verlander
- Detroit Tigers
- Tiger Woods