Justin Verlander has been front and center in the Detroit Tigers starting rotation basically since his first game in 2006, yet this season has seen the former Cy Young winner take a backseat to Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez.
Some of that has to do with the incredible performances from Scherzer and Sanchez. Verlander's spot as the "best pitcher in baseball" was taken from him because this was the first year where we could start to see some chinks in the armor.
In October, where starting pitching performances get analyzed and scrutinized beyond belief, the Tigers will still rely heavily on Verlander on their quest to return to the World Series. He is going to start Game 2 of the American League Division Series against Oakland.
But how much trouble are the Tigers in if Verlander isn't the pitcher he used to be?
I do feel obligated to start by saying that, even with a drop in production this year, Verlander was still among the best pitchers in the American League. He finished fourth in innings pitched (218.1), fourth in Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement (5.2), fourth in strikeouts (217), eighth in strikeouts per nine innings (8.95) and ninth in fielding independent ERA (3.28).
All of those numbers paint a pretty strong picture for Verlander, but there were obvious signs that something was different this season. He allowed 8.7 hits per nine innings, up from 6.2 in 2011 and 7.3 last year, and walked 3.1 batters per nine innings, his highest rate since 2008 (3.9) and second worst of his career.
A local CBS reporter in Detroit actually blamed Verlander's decline for why the Tigers weren't the best team in baseball (or at least didn't have the best record): "For now, it’s too bad Verlander is having this season this season. The Tigers would without a doubt be the best team in baseball if JV was as good as he was last year. But he’s not. He’s just an average middle-of-the-road 3rd starter."
That is a gross overreaction from someone who was frustrated by the Verlander he wanted to see, as opposed to the one out there. I don't know a lot of No. 3 starters who rank in the top five in all of the categories I already mentioned.
To me, the biggest problem the Tigers have right now is the health of Miguel Cabrera. The 2012 AL MVP hasn't been 100 percent, or close to it, for at least a month. He hit just .278/.395/.333 in September. That .729 OPS was his worst individual month this year by 266 points (.995 in April).
Manager Jim Leyland didn't paint a pretty picture of Cabrera's health in a press conference earlier this week, saying that no one knows how much pain the third baseman is in: "He's not 100 percent. He's been playing in a lot of pain. He's a real tough guy. I think if anybody knew the pain he's playing in, they probably wouldn't believe it."
But looking at Verlander, his declining fastball velocity, which was a career-low 93.3 mph, is a sign that a physical decline might be setting in. Opponents hit .278 off his fastball this season, 18 points higher than his career mark. He can still amp up and hit 97 to 98 at times, but it isn't there as often as it once was.
Yet for all of Verlander's faults this season, and clear decline in his stuff, the Tigers might actually be in a better position to succeed in October than they were last year when he was at the height of his magic powers.
That might sound ridiculous because for so many years the Tigers rotation started and stopped with Verlander, but it is a testament to the job that general manager Dave Dombrowski has done compiling arguably the best pitching staff in baseball.
It also speaks to the work that players like Scherzer, Sanchez and Doug Fister have done after coming to Detroit in trades. Those three pitchers were all solid with their previous teams, but no one foresaw them growing into what they have become with the Tigers.
Just going by fWAR, Scherzer, Sanchez and Fister all ranked in the top eight in the American League. Scherzer (6.2) and Sanchez (6.0) were actually first and second in that category, with Verlander two spots below them and Fister (4.5) holding down the eighth spot.
Scherzer and Fister threw more than 200 innings, while Sanchez added 182 in 29 starts. They all had strikeout-to-walk ratios of at least 3.61 while the league average is 2.52.
That trio isn't just good; on their own, they are among the best pitchers in baseball. They tend to get lost behind Verlander's enormous shadow from the last five years, but Scherzer has broken out thanks to a significant increase in the quality of his stuff and vastly improved command.
Sanchez and Fister are just as capable of striking out 10 in a game as Scherzer or Verlander, though they are still fighting to capture the attention of a nation that would rather ponder what's wrong with Verlander.
There is also the matter of Verlander's postseason struggles. Granted, he put most of those to rest in his first three starts (two against Oakland, one against New York) with 24.1 innings, 10 hits, two runs and a 25-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
But overall, he hasn't been a great playoff pitcher with a 4.22 ERA, 11 home runs allowed and 87 baserunners in 70.1 innings. It's not the biggest sample size, but it does suggest that fatigue and better/deeper lineups in October can give Verlander problems.
One dominant pitcher in October can give you a shot to play in the World Series, as the late-'90s Boston Red Sox with Pedro Martinez can attest. But when you have a rotation that goes four deep, you are going to make a significant run every year.
The 1990s Atlanta Braves, the standard by which all pitching staffs are measured, carried that team to the postseason every year, led the franchise to three National League pennants and a World Series in 1995.
We won't know for a long time if these Detroit Tigers will come close to matching that level of production, but they have already made it to one World Series and have as good a chance as anyone to play in the Fall Classic again.
All of that is because of their starting pitching depth, with a strong offensive core not far behind. Even with a Verlander at 85 to 90 percent of what he once was, the Tigers are well positioned to get by the Oakland A's for the second straight year and can stand toe-to-toe against either Boston or Tampa Bay in the ALCS.
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