Assessing the Riskiness of Justin Verlander's Mega-Extension with Detroit Tigers

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 29, 2013

The Detroit Tigers have done it: They've made sure that righty ace Justin Verlander won't go anywhere any time soon.

Now, they just have to hope that he won't fall apart any time soon.

Verlander looked to hit free agency after the 2014 season, but not anymore. According to ESPN's Buster Olney, the Tigers have inked their 30-year-old ace to a five-year contract extension worth $140 million.

Add this on top of the $40 million Verlander is owed over the next two seasons, and he's on the line for $180 million over the next seven years. What's more, the deal includes a vesting option for an eighth year that could bring the contract's total worth to $202 million.

I'd say Verlander has it pretty good right about now. He could already boast about being a former Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP award winner, and he also (maybe?) had that whole Kate Upton thing going for him.

Now, Verlander can boast about being the richest pitcher in baseball history. His deal is worth $5 million more than the $175 million contract extension the Seattle Mariners gave Felix Hernandez a few weeks back.

Once the deal is signed and filed away, the celebration will begin. Verlander and Tigers fans will soak it in, and there will be plenty of back-patting going on between Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and his underlings.

But then begins the finger-crossing. An ace pitcher has agreed to a huge contract, and that means disaster could be just around the corner.

Observe, if you dare, the most expensive contracts ever given out to pitchers, courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts:

Player Years Amount
Felix Hernandez 7 $175M
CC Sabathia 7 $161M
Zack Greinke 6 $147M
Cole Hamels 6 $144M
Johan Santana 6 $137.5M
Matt Cain 6 $127.5M
Barry Zito 7 $126M
Mike Hampton 8 $121M
Cliff Lee 5 $120M
Kevin Brown 7 $105M

Here we have 10 contracts. The three belonging to Hernandez, Greinke and Hamels will only go into effect this year. Cain's is only a year old. Lee's is only two years old.

That leaves five that can be fairly judged: CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, Barry Zito, Mike Hampton and Kevin Brown.

That's not an encouraging list.

Santana's name sticks out like a giant barb-wired exclamation mark. He missed the entire 2011 season recovering from a major shoulder operation, and the New York Mets revealed on Thursday that another major shoulder operation is likely.

That means Santana's career with the Mets is probably over. If so, he will have given them 109 starts and 717 innings for their $137.5 million. For some perspective, Santana gave the Minnesota Twins 101 starts and 693.1 innings when he was at his peak between 2004 and 2006, and he did it for a fraction of the cost.

Injuries also beset Kevin Brown after he signed his massive contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was fine through the first two years of the deal, but he only managed 29 starts between 2001 and 2002 thanks to a series of elbow issues.

Mike Hampton was done in by both injuries and ineffectiveness during the life of his contract. Barry Zito has remained largely healthy during the life of his, but he's only given the San Francisco Giants a 4.47 ERA. Sabathia has been a fine investment for the New York Yankees to date, but some question marks hang over his future after two DL trips in 2012 were followed by offseason elbow surgery.

And now, here comes Verlander with a brand new seven-year contract. Both he and the Tigers hope that his name will not be the next added to the list of cautionary tales inspired by massive contracts for pitchers.

The bad news: Verlander is already 30. In a study for Baseball Prospectus, J.C. Bradbury concluded that that's right about when all players, pitchers included, start to decline. Some of the cautionary tales discussed above can vouch.

Zito had a career-worst season in his age-30 season in 2008. Hampton never made 30 starts again after making 31 in his age-30 season in 2003. Sabathia was unable to make 30 starts the first year after his own age-30 season. Santana's age-30 season was in 2009. He had to have surgery on his elbow at the end of the year, and then he went in for shoulder surgery about a year later. 

But now for the good news: There are normal pitchers, and then there's Justin Verlander. He's different. 

Verlander's durability is the stuff of legend. He's made at least 30 starts every year since his rookie season in 2006, and only Hernandez has logged more innings since 2009. But if we're being technical, Hernandez has actually only logged one more out than Verlander since '09 (see FanGraphs).

Such a heavy workload is concerning in most cases, but Verlander's workload must be put in perspective.

Between the regular season and the postseason, Verlander has logged 1,624 innings. By comparison, King Felix has thrown 1,620.1 innings, and he's three years younger. By the time he was through his age-29 season, Roger Clemens had thrown close to 3,500 innings.

There's also the reality that Verlander just doesn't get hurt. He dealt with some arm fatigue as a rookie in 2006, but since then, his health has been nearly flawless.

Here are the only two injuries Baseball Prospectus has listed for him since 2007:

Year Body Part Severity Games Missed
2011 Gastrointestinal Food poisoning 1
2012 Right thumb Broken callus 0

That's it. Within the last six years, the only thing that waylaid Verlander was a bad meal. I'm guessing that he'll be able to avoid those going forward now that he's going to have the GDP of a small country in his bank account.

So as far as Verlander's track record is concerned, his outlook for the life of his contract looks good. 

Why does Verlander have such a spotless track record when it comes to injuries? B/R Sports Injuries Lead Writer Will Carroll thinks it may have something to do with Verlander's mechanics, noting that there are similarities between Verlander's delivery and Clemens' delivery. Seeing as how Clemens was a productive power pitcher into his 40s, that bodes well for Verlander.

Verlander's durability can also be chalked up to his willingness to pitch rather than throw. We associate him with triple-digit heat, but Verlander's velocity is actually on the decline. According to FanGraphs, the last four years have seen his average fastball velo go 95.6, 95.5, 95.0 and 94.3.

Ordinarily, a noticeable velocity decline like this is cause for alarm. It's not in Verlander's case because a) the last two years have been the best of his career, and b) we know he's doing this on purpose. He'll sit at 91-93 miles per hour for the majority of a start, only busting out the really hard stuff when he needs it.

He can still do that just fine, by the way. Per PITCHf/x, Verlander has gotten his fastball as high as 101 miles per hour in each of the last four seasons, and the radar gun clocked him at 102 MPH last May.

If the pattern works for Verlander now, then it should keep working for him as he advances deeper into his 30s.

Maintaining a mid-90s fastball for many years is a rare feat, but asking Verlander to maintain a fastball in the low 90s with occasional heat through the end of his contract isn't asking too much. If his fastball velocity declines below the 90-mph threshold, he'll still have the control and the secondary pitches to get by.

Will Verlander break down eventually?

Of course he will. Whether we're talking freaks like Verlander or ordinary pitchers, the baseball grim reaper will come sooner or later. Based on his health track record, his mechanics and his pitching style, though, it's just very likely that the grim reaper will come for Verlander later rather than sooner.

If so, the timing will work out just fine for the Tigers. It's not like they hammered this extension out to make sure that Verlander will still be around when they're ready to contend in a few years. The club's championship window is wide open, and it should stay wide open for at least a few more years.

Before the inevitable breakdown comes, Verlander will have more than his fair share of chances to lead the Tigers to a World Series victory. Once he is starting to break down, the Tigers will probably stare a rebuild in the face anyway, as stars like Miguel Cabrera, Austin Jackson, Doug Fister and Alex Avila could conceivably leave the team after 2015.

Verlander could thus play on a pretty weak team toward the end of his contract, in which case no master plans will be ruined if he breaks down. The only real loss would be the dollars.

Considering all this, the Tigers aren't putting the fate of the franchise on the line with Verlander's contract. Although I see the warning signs, I refuse to believe that the deal is doomed to be a failure just because of what's happened with past monster contracts for stud pitchers.

That's what I should believe, mind you. Same goes for you, Mr. John Q. Baseball Fan. There are probably plenty of experts out there who already have Verlander pegged as the next guy to fall prey to the massive pitcher contract curse.

But come on. This is Justin Verlander we're talking about.


Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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