Are Justin Verlander's Days as an MLB Ace Already Over?

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Are Justin Verlander's Days as an MLB Ace Already Over?
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About 15 months ago, the Detroit Tigers locked up Justin Verlander to a massive contract worth $180 million for seven seasons, a deal that made him the highest-paid pitcher in Major League Baseball history at the time. Think they'd like a redo right about now?

Although that pact has since been surpassed by the seven-year, $215 million one given to Clayton Kershaw by the Los Angeles Dodgers this past winter, Verlander's total tally checks in at No. 2 among arms and No. 11 among all players, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts.

The thing is, Detroit did that deal when Verlander was at his peak. He had won the American League Cy Young and MVP Awards in 2011 and then finished second in Cy Young and eighth in MVP voting in 2012. In short, his performance commanded such a record-breaking payout.

But now? Well, after a disappointing 2013 that ended on a high note down the stretch and in the playoffs but perhaps ultimately was a foreboding sign of what was to come, Verlander is now in the middle of the longest stretch of poor pitching in his career in a season that's shaping up to be his worst ever.

Sure, there's the tongue-in-cheek theory that Verlander has been sidetracked by his relationship with supermodel Kate Upton, as posited by Jonathan Lehman of the New York Post. But this is a little more serious, a little more real than that for the Tigers, who still owe the 31-year-old right-hander—drum roll—$140 million over the next five seasons after 2014.

Essentially, Verlander is going to continue to be paid as if he's not only an ace but the very best pitcher in the sport—his average annual salary will be $28 million through the year 2019—and yet he's actually been pitching like one of the very worst in the game this season.

Justin Verlander's 2014 Performance and Ranks
STATISTIC VERLANDER MLB RANK*
IP 104.2 12
K/9 6.6 66
BB/9 3.6 80
ERA 4.82 88
FIP 4.03 62
xFIP 4.58 89
fWAR 1.5 36
bWAR 0.1 81
*Out of 95 qualified starting pitchers

FanGraphs and Baseball Reference

If there's one statistic that is especially troubling in 2014, it's that mediocre 6.6 strikeouts per nine innings. Not only is that figure well below the ever-increasing MLB average of 7.7 per, it also represents the worst mark for Verlander since 2006, when he whiffed just 6.0 per nine—as a rookie.

Over his previous five seasons from 2009 through last year, Verlander averaged 9.2 strikeouts per nine, and even in his less than stellar 2013, that number was 8.9.

What's perplexing about Verlander's showing this year is that he actually started off well enough, despite having offseason surgery on his core. In fairness, that procedure could be somewhat responsible for his performance to date, but if so, how does one explain that Verlander threw much, much better in his first eight starts compared to his last eight turns?

Justin Verlander's 2014 Season Split in Half
IP ERA WHIP K/9
Starts 1-8 54.0 2.67 1.31 7.2
Starts 9-16 50.2 7.11 1.72 6.0

Baseball Reference

In the wake of his struggles, Verlander's velocity has been a popular topic, and it should be. As this table shows, he still gets plenty on his fastball, but this once-mighty pitch clearly has lost a fair amount of fuzz over the past handful of years:

Justin Verlander's Declining Velocity (2010-2014)
SEASON AVG FASTBALL VELOCITY
2010 95.5 MPH
2011 95.0 MPH
2012 94.7 MPH
2013 94.0 MPH
2014 93.4 MPH

PITCHf/x via FanGraphs

That's to be expected, of course, because even the hardest-throwing arms eventually lose a few miles off the radar-gun readings. But it's one more bit of evidence that Verlander no longer is his dominant self.

For yet some more proof, here's a look at Verlander's pitch values in recent seasons. This weighted metric indicates how many runs above (or below) average a particular pitch is for a hurler.

In Verlander's case, his entire four-pitch repertoire—fastball, curveball, slider and changeup—has been trending downward dating back to 2010, with dips in 2012 turning into a drop-off in 2013 followed by a bottoming out this year.

Justin Verlander's Declining Pitch Values (2010-2014)
SEASON FASTBALL CURVEBALL SLIDER CHANGEUP
2010 5.5 6.2 4.8 12.2
2011 17.6 11.4 5.3 10.5
2012 13.8 11.8 4.6 3.7
2013 0.0 0.6 3.9 3.0
2014 -5.2 -3.4 1.1 -1.4

PITCHf/x via FanGraphs

If there's a potentially promising point in all this doom and gloom, it may be that Verlander has been through this type of trying time before.

Back in 2008, Verlander was in just his third full season, and although the former No. 2 overall pick (2004) had the pedigree and the stuff that stood out, he had yet to really put it all together. Still, after looking like he was on the verge of doing so after his Rookie of the Year-winning 2006 and even better 2007, Verlander lost it in '08.

In fact, his numbers from that year look an awful lot like the ones he's putting up now:

Justin Verlander's 2008 and 2014
SEASON ERA FIP WHIP BB/9 K/9
2008 4.84 4.18 1.40 3.9 7.3
2014 4.82 4.03 1.51 3.6 6.6

Baseball Reference

Then again, when Verlander bounced back in a big way in 2009, finishing third in the Cy Young and kicking off a four-year run of brilliance, he was only 26 years old. He's since added about, oh, five years—and some 1,000 innings—on his right arm. A similar bounce-back probably isn't just around the corner at this stage.

The other possibility that Verlander and the Tigers seem to be grasping at is that mechanical alterations can help him get right and regain some or most of his former form.

Verlander recently has been doing a lot more between-starts work to try to figure out his flaws, as Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said to George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press:

We’re looking at video and talking about mechanics and he went out right away and threw about 20-25 pitches. That right there is more than he would normally do.

Then he threw his regular bullpen the day after that and all three of us were out there. And then he did a little flat ground the day after that, working on some mechanical things that he and Jonesy [pitching coach Jeff Jones] have been talking about.

I would say this is probably more (work). When you have a mechanical flaw, the only way to get rid of it is to practice the correct form. Just going out there and throwing one bullpen is not going to change bad habits.

"There are no overnight cures," Verlander recently told Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press, "especially when you're changing your set-up, your arm action and landing point. I don't think I've ever gone through more of a frustrating period than I went through the last month."

All of that extra effort that came after all of that frustration appeared to work in Verlander's last outing Saturday against the Cleveland Indians, when he had arguably his finest start of 2014 by firing seven innings of five-hit, two-run ball while striking out eight and walking just one, both season bests.

Afterward, here's what Jason Beck of MLB.com wrote:

"I think this is probably the first drastic adjustment that I've made in the last two years," Verlander said. "Last year, I'd call it tinkering. This is a bit more than tinkering. …

"I wouldn't say a complete overhaul. I still throw the same, but this is more than tinkering. This is a change, for sure."

The exact changes would require a physics course and an explanation of the cause-and-effect relationship in his delivery. Physically, the end result was to bring his arm up higher in his delivery and command his pitches better.

Pragmatically, the result was a lot more swings and misses Saturday night from a Cleveland lineup that rarely missed against him a month ago.

"I saw different swings out there than I have," Verlander said.

What was the evaluation from those who have been watching Verlander closely, like Ausmus?

"Ironing out these mechanics is not going to be overnight or even a one-start [process]," Ausmus told Beck. "He's still going to continue to work on it for his next start. Hopefully, eventually, over the course of a couple weeks, he doesn't have to think about those mechanics. They just automatically happen."

Is Justin Verlander still capable of being one of the best pitchers in baseball?

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As far as what might be expected of Verlander going forward, his stuff is still there, if slightly diminished. Between that, his competitive nature and his pitching know-how, he certainly has the ability to twirl more than the occasional gem from time to time or even put together a stretch similar to something vintage Verlander could.

That said, this is a 31-year-old with nearly 2,000 innings on his right arm in his 10-year career, so it's almost a guarantee that he's had his best days in terms of full seasons of absolute and consistent dominance.

In other words, Verlander may no longer be among the very best pitchers in baseball day in and day out, but that doesn't mean he still can't be on any given day.

That given day could come Friday, when Verlander steps on the mound next and attempts to prove he still has it in him to be an ace by following up with a second straight typical Verlander performance.

Just remember that even for Verlander, typical may no longer mean what it once did.

 

Statistics are accurate through June 23 and come from MLB.com, Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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