Saturday, June 14, 2014

Verlander Losing His Touch

Verlander's been a mess for over a full calendar year now (DynastySportsEmpire)
As much as it pains me to say this, I think we've seen the best of Justin Verlander.

It's hard to believe how far he's fallen since the beginning of last year, when he was still widely regarded as the best pitcher on the planet. After two straight incredible seasons, the first six weeks of 2013 were business as usual for the 2011 American League MVP and Cy Young recipient. Through May 10th he had a 1.55 ERA and 50/13 K/BB ratio through 46-and-one-third innings. Opponents were batting just .222/.276/.287 with one home run against him. He was as unhittable as ever.

In the 13 months since, he's been thoroughly mediocre. He was average at best over the remainder of 2013, with an ERA just a hair below four, and has been brutal this year. Not including the postseason, over his last 41 starts he's compiled a 4.51 ERA, more than a run above his career mark. His WHIP has been 1.42 after staying below one in 2011 and 2012 combined, and his K/BB rate, which cleared four in 2011 and '12 combined, has fallen to 2.32.

All metrics--traditional, advanced, and velocity--indicate Verlander is a pitcher in decline. He's less accurate and slower, and at 31 will probably never be the same.

With both his walks and hits on the rise, it's easy to see why Verlander's struggled so much. His walk rate has climbed steadily from 2 BB/9 in 2011 to 2.3 in 2012, 3.1 last year and 3.8 so far this year, which would be his worst since 2008, when his ERA was almost five. His command hasn't just slipped, it's gotten terrible. His walk rate has nearly doubled in the span of three years.

He's also become more hittable. Since allowing just 6.2 H/9 in 2011, the best mark in baseball that year, his hit rate has risen to 7.3 in 2012, 8.7 the year after that and 9.7 this year. He's been battered for more than one hit per inning during his 41-start malaise.

I'm sure there's some bad luck in there, as his BABiP has been the third-highest in baseball dating back to the start of last season, likely a combination of bad luck and Detroit's iffy infield defense. His ERA exceeded his FIP last year (3.46 to 3.28) and this year (4.61 to 3.98), which also suggests bad fortune. His left-on-base percentage is well below the league average this year as well.

Still, there's no getting around the fact that Verlander simply isn't the dominant hurler he used to be. What's most troubling about his poor start to this season is that his strikeout rate has fallen off a cliff. After holding steady around one batter per inning in each of the last three years, it's nosedived to 6.6 K/9 this year. It hasn't been below 8.8 since 2008, his worst full year in the majors. This decline is most readily explained by his diminishing fastball velocity, which has slipped every year since 2009 and is now the lowest it's ever been. Verlander simply can't reach back for the heat to blow hitters away like he used to, which probably has something to do with the fact that he's thrown more innings than any pitcher in baseball since the start of the 2006 season (Verlander's rookie year).

It' clear a change in the way Verlander attacks hitters is needed, and until he adapts he's going to continue to struggle like he has recently. The six-time All-Star has been brutal lately, allowing at least five earned runs in five of his last six starts and 35 runs (31 earned) over his past 37 and two-thirds innings. He's surrendered six home runs and walked 18 while striking out only 24. Once an ace and Detroit's most reliable starter, he's nothing more than an average hurler at best. In those 41 starts I mentioned, the Tigers have gone 18-23. Yep, they've been a sub-.500 team with Verlander on the mound for more than a year now.

Here are some more startling stats: since the start of last year, Verlander has a worse ERA than Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Vargas, Jorge De La Rosa, and Travis Wood. His FIP is worse than Bartolo Colon's and barely better than Jose Quintana's and Justin Masterson's. His K/BB ratio has been bested by 53 qualified pitchers, including A.J. Griffin, Eric Stults, Dillon Gee, Lance Lynn, and A.J. Burnett.

Once the best pitcher on the face of the earth, Verlander has been the worst starting pitcher on his own team this year. His sudden fall from grace is a stark reminder that even the best pitcher can practically lose it overnight. Look what happened to CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, and Roy Halladay. One second they're on top of the world, and the next they're just another pitcher. I didn't think I'd be saying this for a few more years, but it seems that Verlander is precisely that: just another pitcher.

The Tigers, who owe him $28 million per season over the next five years and will probably be on the hook for another $22 million in 2020, better hope that's not the case. Otherwise the former MVP and Cy Young winner will have a new title for the rest of the decade: the most expensive innings-eater in baseball history.

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