Fantasy Baseball: Justin Verlander and the Uncertainty of Top Starting Pitchers

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistJuly 26, 2013

Justin Verlander's sudden and steep decline should remind fantasy baseball managers that starting pitchers are never a sure thing.

We could only look the other way for so long as the American League's apex ace unraveled. Fresh off signing a lucrative contract that made him the highest paid pitcher in MLB history, Verlander has not been the best, or even the second-best pitcher on his own team.

The 30-year-old hurler, who has tossed 538 innings over the past two years when including postseason play, has registered a pedestrian 3.99 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. He cost a first- or second-round selection in most drafts this season, but Verlander has not delivered anywhere close to a proper return on that investment, currently ranking No. 56 on ESPN's Player Rater.

His recent implosion, an 11-hit, seven-run spanking from the light-hitting Chicago White Sox, has fans and analysts alike locating the panic button. ESPN's Nate Ravitz is among those fantasy experts who are starting to worry.

These struggles illuminate a rousing instability in starting pitchers that lead many to bypass aces in the early round of drafts. But for now, numerous owners are wondering what to do with their beleaguered ace, while everyone else is contemplating sending a low-ball offer to Verlander's frustrated owner.

Is this just a rough patch, or is Verlander succumbing to an egregious workload?


Examining Verlander's Meltdown

There are certainly numbers to support the theory that Verlander is the victim of an unlucky chain of events. His 3.42 FIP is 0.57 of a run lower than his ERA, and a .330 BABIP wildly above his career .288 mark helps explain the sudden smorgasbord of hits amassed against the star.

Reason not to jump ship on the 2011 Cy Young winner? Perhaps, but that's not doing justice to the other handful of alarming trends.

For starters, the strikeouts are down and the walks are up. That's never good. His current 3.33 BB/9 ratio would set a new career low, and his 8.63 K/9 rate has not dipped that far down since 2008. 

His once dominating fastball is no longer torturing the opposition. According to FanGraphs, his heater, which clocked in at an average velocity of 94.3 mph last year, is only sitting at 92.7 this season As a result, opponents are cashing in. Buster Olney tweeted the terrifying numbers.

In those eight starts, Verlander has struck out 31 batters while walking 23. A 4.97 ERA and 1.60 WHIP have followed, with most of that damage inflicted by the White Sox and Kansas City Royals. Yikes.

These poor outings are no mere fluke. We should all agree with Rany Jazayerli that this is not the same Justin Verlander.

After enduring a heavier workload than any other pitcher over the past couple years, his troubles could amount to more than simply a tired arm. It's hard not to be concerned when there are several past precedents of top hurlers falling off the map.


Fallen Aces

Read 10 preseason draft guides and chances are all 10 will encourage drafters to build around a few stud batters before addressing the pitching staff.

It's not because we want to hoard all the aces for ourselves; even the best pitchers have a tendency to fall into the abyss. 

At least Tim Lincecum had the decency to give us a head's up before his eventual collapse. Big Time Timmy Jim's strikeout and walk rates subtly slipped in 2010 and 2011 before losing it in 2012. Unfortunately, not all aces are kind enough to alert us of their downfall.

Last year, Roy Halladay took the plunge from top fantasy starter to meddling option. Here's a look at the veteran's drastic, unexpected downfall.


*WAR courtesy of FanGraphs

Like Verlander, Halladay experienced a decline in velocity after years of piling up his innings pitched. The 36-year-old could only muster up 34.1 more of them this year before landing on the disabled list.

While his regression was not as catastrophic, Zack Greinke reverted from baseball's best pitcher in 2009 to a perpetual tease in subsequent years. By now you may have forgotten about Brandon Webb, who pitched great for four years in which he logged at least 225 innings per season. He won 22 games in 2008, but would only pitch four more innings the following season.

So it's actually the norm for at least one Cy Young winner to struggle badly immediately following a year of elite output. This year has been no exception, and it stretches beyond Verlander's troubles.


Aren't These Guys Supposed to Be Good?

Verlander, R.A. Dickey, David Price, Matt Cain, Jered Weaver, Cole Hamels, Kris Medlen and Johnny Cueto all finished 2012 among the top-10 starting pitchers in ESPN's Player Rater.

None rank in the top 50 this year.

Dickey and Medlen's sudden success made them question marks while Cueto has suffered through injuries and a reversal in fortune that helped his strive last season. 

It's Price, Cain and Hamels in particular that make you wonder if any hurler is a sure thing. One of baseball's sturdiest pitchers since his arrival, Price saw his velocity (and subsequently his strikeouts) dip before embarking on his first trip to the disabled list.

Shortly after striking out 193 batters while generating his third sub-three ERA in the past four years, Cain has recorded a 5.00 ERA. His velocity remains steady, but small losses of command can create colossal problems. 

Hamels, who has shown no sign of injury, is brandishing a 4.16 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. From 2010-12, he never posted a ERA higher than 3.06. You would have been hard-pressed to find sturdier bets than Verlander, Price, Cain and Hamels heading into the season. 

Unless you snagged Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez, you're probably not feeling too good about paying top dollar for an ace. 

Meanwhile, aces Adam Wainwright, Max Scherzer and Yu Darvish were all available rounds later to grab as a No. 2 starter. That's not even considering Matt Harvey, Shelby Miller, Hisashi Iwakuma, Patrick Corbin, Derek Holland, Mike Minor and all the other premier arms that rested in the bargain bin during the spring.

Not all star hitters are impervious to a bad season, but rarely does a slugger go from superstar to goat in a year without suffering a significant injury. Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp and Giancarlo Stanton have all direly disappointed their owners this year, but injuries and a PED suspension are the culprits.

What are the chances of a healthy Miguel Cabrera hitting .275 with 25 home runs next season? Slim to none, but the equivalent annually occurs for a big-name pitcher.


What Does This Tell Us for Future Drafts?

So what does this all mean going forward? Will Kershaw or Hernandez's arm fall off in the near future?

It'd be irresponsible to predict that, but the instability of a pitcher's performance should stray gamers to peruse more dependable bats to anchor their squad.

That's not to say people should ignore pitching altogether when assembling a roster. Second-tier aces often remain in the fourth- or fifth-round with ace-caliber talents (Scherzer, Darvish, Harvey, etc.) lurking. 

Too much uncertainty exists to start your team with a starting pitcher. Chase the unheralded arms in the middle rounds with the potential to break through. If that doesn't work out, there's always free agency and the trade market, where you can gamble on Verlander or one of his fallen comrades to fend off their fall from grace. Just make sure you acquire one of those guys for cents on the dollar.

Starting pitchers rely much more on their defense, supporting offense and variance in batted balls to drive their fantasy value. Combine their dependency with the wear and tear of pitching, and drafters should go for the top hitter when in doubt.


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