Justin Verlander: Breaking Down Struggles of Tigers Ace


Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Looking at the last four years, something really jumps out about the production of Justin Verlander.

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Now, the regression from 2011 wasn’t massive. When you consider how great 2011 was, some regression was bound to happen. But 2013 was quite ordinary and thus far, you’d be being very nice to call 2014 ordinary.

So what exactly is going wrong?

Loss of Fastball Velocity

We’ve seen it with guys like Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum in the past. When pitchers — especially those who rely on a big fastball — begin to show signs of decline, it tends to go simultaneously with a drop in velocity.

So has that been the case with Justin Verlander? Well, his Fangraphs page paints a rather blunt picture.

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The fastball is definitely losing velocity.

Now, skeptics may point out that even though his fastball isn’t as fast as it once was, 93 is still well above the Major League average.

That’s true and if that was the only thing that jumped out, I’d actually subscribe more to that line of thinking. But I can’t quite separate the loss of control with this problem…

Fewer Strikeouts, More Walks

If we’re trying to pinpoint the biggest problem for Justin Verlander, this is it.

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In 2011 and 2012, Verlander’s combination of control and power made him a borderline unfair match-up. It’s one thing to throw for great power and strike a lot of guys out. It’s one thing to have great control and walk few hitters. But to do both? That’s just not something you see much of in baseball.

Now, his fastball is not only slower, but he’s not throwing strikes. Here’s where the the problems meet.

  • If you’re walking a lot of guys, it stands to reason that you’re also falling behind in a lot of counts.
  • When you’re down in the count, you’re forced to throw a lot of challenge fastballs.
  • When you’re down in the count, you’re not in position to strike as many hitters out.
  • When you’re down in the count and having to challenge with a fastball that isn’t as fast and the opponent has a good sense it’s coming, it becomes infinitely easier to hit, and hit hard.

Which leads us here…

More Hits

Like the walks, this is a pretty noticeable drop in production.

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I threw the home runs in there because I want to be crystal clear about the fact that he is not being plagued by allowing more home runs. Actually, that may not be the end of the world. Pitchers that have great control and power frequently allow home runs at a pretty high rate — the best recent example of that is Curt Schilling. But those homers tend to be solo shots, which generally don’t hurt that bad.

What hurts pitchers? When they allow hits with men on base. Allowing more runners obviously inflates the WHIP and generally speaking, it’s going to elevate the ERA, as well.

All three of these problems have intertwined this year and to a lesser extent in 2013 to lead to a serious drop in production for Justin Verlander.

So going forward, here’s the question for Verlander’s fantasy owners — or potential fantasy owners — is the problem likely to be turned around?

Well, mechanical issues aren’t uncommon, even for great pitchers. They’ll often have a few rough outings, get the problem fixed, and become one of the game’s best again. But this issue has been going on for the better part of two years.

Unless it comes out that he’s dealing with some discomfort or injury that can be healed by missing a start or two, I’m thinking that it’s time to sell Verlander.

He’s still got a big enough name that people will be more willing to give a good haul for him, so I doubt you’re selling low. As a matter of fact, I recently traded Verlander in a fantasy league to an owner whose knowledge I respect very much, and even though I also moved Paul Goldschmidt in that deal — I got what I’d call a great haul in that trade.

Now, assuming Verlander starts every fifth day, this is what the rest of his first half looks like:

  • vs. Kansas City
  • at Cleveland
  • at Houston
  • vs. Oakland
  • vs. LA Dodgers
  • at Kansas City

There are a few tough match-ups there. Still, while I wouldn’t advise it, I could justify waiting until the All-Star Break to move him, depending on where you stand and how much you can risk. It’s not impossible that he’ll build some momentum by then and bump the trade value a little bit.

But I don’t think this is a temporary problem. I never think it’s a good idea to desperately trade someone, but you should be looking to make a move. You never want to say anything is impossible, but a big 2014 turnaround from Justin Verlander doesn’t seem likely. If he turns things around in a big way, I’d say it’s more likely to come in the off-season.