At the risk of looking like an idiot sometime this year, let me just say that, despite what Rod Allen and the other good folks at FSD say, ad nauseam, Justin Verlander is not the ace of the Tigers staff. He wasn’t the ace of the Tigers staff for most of last year. He is not the ace this year.
The numbers tell part of the story. Dig deep into the statistics and you realize Verlander now profiles as a good, usually very good, pitcher. But not a Number One guy. Last year he experienced declines in his strikeout rate and overall swing-and-miss rates and increases in his ERA, FIP, walk rate and contact rate. By both traditional statistics and advanced metrics both Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez were better.
The other part of story is that for most of last year Verlander just didn’t seem right. The concerns first arose when his velocity started slipping. No longer could he effortlessly reach triple digits in the eighth inning. Indeed, the 100 mph fastball went almost completely AWOL, replaced by the very occasional 98-99. His four seamer seemed to sit most of the time in 92-95 range, topping out at 97, a mark impressive for everyone but a Verlander. Then he started getting hit around a little, sometimes a lot. His delivery became a topic of discussion and opposing hitters dropped anonymous comments about his sudden status as a mere mortal.
Much of that has been forgotten, because Verlander recaptured his dominance in September and the playoffs. But here we are 36 games into 2014 and Verlander is looking a lot like the Verlander of most of 2013. But with even worse peripherals. His walk rate is up again. His strikeout rate continues to slide. His FIP is 4.32. And his fastball, well, that’s the most alarming thing of all. He seems to be struggling to hit even 95. Fangraphs’ velocity chart shows his average four-seam fastball is down over one mph from last year, when it fell almost three-quarters of a mile from the year before. The results haven’t been bad, mostly because of a low home run rate and until Wednesday a low strand rate. But the trembling anticipation that preceded every Verlander start is missing. Tigers fans have mostly dropped the whole “VerDay” thing that became an internet meme before every start a few years again.
These days, Verlander is a very good pitcher. He still has those 3-4 above average pitches. But he doesn’t really have that wipeout fastball, which made every curve ball he dropped in for a strike a work of art. Age and innings, it appears, have finally started to tame his freakish abilities.
Or at least that’s the way it seems to me watching Verlander pitch. He works the edges. He outfoxes. But he rarely blows away the hitter with smoke. The days when a Verlander start were “Must See TV” are gone. And honestly Verlander is not the best pitcher on the Tigers staff (Scherzer is). That doesn’t mean he isn’t incredibly valuable to the Tigers. Or one of the top 30 pitchers in baseball. But let’s stop pretending he is something he really isn’t.