The Detroit Tigers have dropped eight of their past 10 games. There is no need to panic just yet, but there are two burning questions that effect the Tigers right now as the dog days of summer are set to begin.
Can Justin Verlander return to his ace form?
Verlander has been all over the place lately, allowing five or more earned runs in each of his past three starts. His past two starts haven’t been good by even average major league starter standards. He has allowed 11 hits in each of those starts and accumulated three total strikeouts during that time.
Tigers fans are used to seeing Verlander reach double-digit strikeouts on a consist basis and that has yet to be the case this year. Most of Verlander’s pitching struggles start and end with his fastball that has been a plus-plus pitch for him during most of career and especially his prime.
Since 2009, Verlander’s average fastball velocity has dropped in each season and is now at a career-low 93.1 MPH, per fangraphs.com. Teams are also not biting on his pitches outside the zone. In 2014, batters are swinging at 28.2% of pitches outside the zone against Verlander versus 33.2% in 2013 and 35% in 2012.
The amount of strikes that batters swing and miss at are also down to under 10% for just the second time since 2008, which means Verlander doesn’t have that awesome swing-and-miss stuff he used to possess.
This all starts with his fastball and command of that pitch. In 2014, he has only thrown his fastball on 35.1% of his pitches. To me, that means he doesn’t trust what was once his best pitch that made his curveball look unworldly.
I’m not too worried about Verlander returning to top-of-the-rotation material, but he may have finally lost his ace status to Max Scherzer for the time being.
When Andy Dirks comes back, what will he bring to the lineup?
Dirks began baseball activities earlier in May, sticking to his original timetable. He is scheduled to return the first week of June but that is always subject to change.
Prior to the 2014 season, the Tigers staff envisioned a nice platoon out in left field with Dirks and Rajai Davis. With Davis’ recent struggles, Dirks could be looked at as help out in left field, despite the solid play from J.D. Martinez in recent weeks.
The question will be, when Dirks comes back, what do the Tigers do with Martinez? The best guess is that the Tigers will most likely send him down to keep giving him steady at-bats as insurance in either corner outfield position. The Tigers could attempt to trade him but won’t get much value out of him (more than likely a player to be named later).
Dirks has always been solid in left field for the Tigers but has never been able to lock down that position full-time. The idea of the Davis-Dirks platoon in left field seems great right now, and could help the Tigers with mach ups come playoff time.
There is no need for the Tigers to panic despite their recent struggles. They hold a a four-game lead in the American League Central, after dropping eight of their past 10 games. The bullpen has been much better than they were in April, so the Dirks question and Verlander scenario still look as the two burning questions that the Tigers need to answer.Shortstop on the other hand is another story, but I’ve been in the Eugenio Suarez camp since Jose Iglesias went down, and I still believe he is the best shortstop in the system right now. He may not be able to handle major league pitching on a consistent basis just yet, but can he hit .200 like Andrew Romine? I would say yes.
Verlander is the major kink in the armor for the Tigers, as he is seen as a top-2 starter in the playoff rotation but can’t seem to put together a quality start right now. Verlander said that he is going to do anything he can to get back to his best form and he will, but will he return to his 2011 level? That is hard to see because that year could be his peak year in his career arc. Look for Verlander to use that electric fastball much more to stage his secondary pitches, something he hasn’t been doing in his past few starts.