Detroit Tigers’ Justin Verlander–What To Expect
The Detroit Tigers are ready to send one of their knights in shining armor back into battle.
Just don’t expect him to slay as many dragons as he once did.
Justin Verlander succumbed to a strained biceps in his throwing arm late in spring training and has been recuperating ever since. His convalescence has taken far longer than originally anticipated, but after two rehab starts for AAA Toledo, the latest of which was near-dominant, Verlander is ready to go for the big club. He’s scheduled to pitch Saturday against the Indians.
So what can Tiger fans expect from Verlander for the balance of the season?
To answer that question, it’s instructive to consider the 32-year-old right hander’s performance during his peak years of 2011-2012, versus how he’s fared since.
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In 2011 Verlander was the finest pitcher in baseball, as evidenced by his stat line and the American League Cy Young and MVP awards he won. According to Brooks Baseball, he averaged 95-96 mph on his four-seam fastball throughout that historic season.
2012 was another celebrated season for Verlander, as he finished second in the Cy Young award voting. His fastball averaged 94-96 mph, as he again dominated AL competition.
After signing a massive five-year, $140 million contract extension in the offseason, Verlander lost a tick on his fastball (93-95 mph) and his performance, though still respectable, trended downward.
Last year was Verlander’s worst since 2008, when he went 11-17 with an ERA of 4.84. Ominously, he continued to lose velocity on his once elite four-seamer, which sat between 92-94 mph. Though his fastball remained firm by league standards, the lower velocity was evident in his strikeouts per nine innings, which dropped precipitously from 8.9 in 2013 to 6.9. His strikeout to walk ratio also shrank to its lowest point since 2008.
We have two reference points for Verlander this year, spring training and two rehab starts for the AAA Toledo Mud Hens.
It’s difficult to evaluate veteran pitchers based on spring training performance, as they are generally unconcerned about statistical measures and are intent on fine-tuning their bodies and repertoire for the upcoming season.
For what it’s worth, Verlander had an uneven spring until he was shut down in late March. In 16 innings, his ERA was 5.63 and he (disturbingly) yielded six home runs. The larger issue was his velocity, which was similar to the 2014 season, where he sat at 92-94 mph and occasionally touched 95.
As for his rehab starts, take your pick.
Verlander was understandably rusty the first time out for the Mud Hens in Indianapolis on May 31st and labored, throwing 79 pitches in 2.2 innings, yielding three runs.
Last Saturday before a packed house in Toledo, though, Verlander put it together, striking out nine in 5.2 innings, while only allowing one unearned run.
As part of a Jurassic Park promotion, Verlander began his Toledo start by appearing on the mound with a dinosaur. Tiger fans can only hope there was no symbolism attached, as Verlander’s once high-octane fastball is on the endangered species list, and may be completely extinct before his contract expires in 2019.
The Bottom Line
So what can the Detroit Tigers expect this summer from one of the finest pitchers ever to wear the the Olde English “D”?
To begin, optimists should be disabused of the notion that a triumphant return of the Verlander of 2011-2012 is in the offing.
At age 32, Verlander clearly is not over the hill, but neither is he in his prime.
In the last nine years he has thrown more high velocity pitches than virtually any major leaguer pitcher, many of which were unleashed in “high leverage” situations.
It takes a toll.
The various performance projection systems (e.g., Steamer) seem to agree, as they expect Verlander to be a slightly above average pitcher in 2015, with an ERA in the upper 3’s and 7-8 strikeouts per nine innings.
Not exactly the stuff of an ace, but a welcome improvement from 2014.
So it’s reasonable to assume that though Verlander will probably never again conjure up the magic of 2011-12, he should at least function as a quality number three starter in the immediate future.
From the Tigers’ perspective, they’ll be more than happy with a healthy Verlander producing at that level.
After all, a battle-ready knight with a chink or two in his armor is better than no knight at all.