Choose your own adventure: What’s up with Detroit Tigers’ Justin Verlander?


Last night, Justin Verlander did not look good. Physically, yes, he looks the exact same as he has for the past eight seasons – dude has a Dorian Gray portrait somewhere in his house – but there was something off about the way he was pitching. Heck, there’s been something off about his pitching since the start of this season, but is it possible to pinpoint the problem?

May 20, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) reacts in the fourth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Option 1 – Verlander is still struggling with the after-effects of his offseason core surgery.

Verlander has been a fitness freak during his time as a Tiger, and this offseason he suffered an injury to his rectus abdominus while doing squats. The surgery delayed his spring training regimen by several starts, so he’s been working without the bonus of his usual maniacal exercise-and-pitching routine.

Additionally, anyone who is familiar with baseball-centric exercises knows how important the core muscles can be, both for hitters and for pitchers. With the damage done to such an integral series of muscles, and the subsequent repair and rehabilitation, one has to imagine that Verlander is still trying to get himself back into the shape he’s been in in the past. It’s hard for someone like Verlander to rear back and dial up the velocity and nastiness on his pitches when he’s still recovering from not just the injury, but the surgery and the absence of routine.

Option 2 – Typical Verlander slow start

We’ve been spoiled as Tigers fans because of Verlander’s 2011 and 2012 seasons, where he was dominant right out of the gate. Prior to that Verlander often got out to a slower start in April that would sometimes creep into May. There was just something strange about it, be it the colder weather, the adjustment from spring training to the regular season, or shedding rust from the offseason, but Verlander just got off to cruddy starts. The fact that he’d rebound well would overshadow the crud (save for his abysmal 2008 season…but that whole season was snake-bit for the Detroit Tigers in general), so Maypril would just be an aggravating memory.

In 2013 it seemed like perhaps he’d reverted a little bit away from his superhuman levels of the previous season, when his slow start carried over past May and even into June. Old habits can die hard, as can old weaknesses.

Option 3 – Simple regression for Verlander

Fangraphs had a piece recently about pitchers’ SIERA climbing to dangerous levels, and it ended the article with an examination of Justin Verlander, who is posting his worst SIERA since the shart that was 2008.

The Fangraphs glossary defines the SIERA statistic as:

"Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA) is the newest in a long line of ERA estimators. Like it’s predecessors FIP and xFIP, SIERA attempts to answer the question: what is the underlying skill level of this pitcher? How well did they actually pitch over the past year? Should their ERA have been higher, lower, or was it about right?But while FIP and xFIP largely ignore balls in play — they focus on strikeouts, walks, and homeruns instead — SIERA adds in complexity in an attempt to more accurately model what makes a pitcher successful. SIERA doesn’t ignore balls in play, but attempts to explain why certain pitchers are more successful at limiting hits and preventing runs. This is the strength of SIERA; while it is only slightly more predictive than xFIP, SIERA tells us more about the how and why of pitching."

Before last night’s stinker Verlander’s SIERA this season wass 4.33, compared to his ERA Of 3.15. Counting his efforts last night, his xFIP is 4.54 and his ERA is 3.55. That’s a pretty big disparity on both parts.

Also, one can examine Verlander’s average fastball velocity. Starting in 2009 and ending this season, his fastball was moving at 95.6, 95.5, 95.0, 94.7, 94.0, and 93.2. Whether it’s an example of Verlander being more judicious about the consistency of his fireball or the simple egress of velocity due to age, the fact of the matter is that Verlander could be regressing, as all pitchers are wont to do.

Sure, people can attribute Verlander’s  funk to a myriad of other things, and I guarantee you’ll see at least a few tweets that blame Kate Upton, amongst other reasons both intriguing and inane. But as it is right now Justin Verlander is not pitching well. As to why is anyone’s guess.