Since it’s no longer April and 1) we can feel better psychologically about discussing small sample size statistics and 2) I have dramatically more free time, it’s worth looking into some early season trends. Unfortunately, this is a Tigers website and the team has only played like seven games this season due to the rainouts and off days, so we’re a little behind everyone else. To that end, Justin Verlander.
I pointed out last week that he’s clearly over his mid-2013 struggles. If you look at his numbers dating back to last September, postseason included, you’d be very pleased. In 15 starts, he’s thrown 102.2 innings and turned in a 1.93 ERA and 1.84 FIP. That’s Pedro Martinez at his peak kind of stuff, and we’re talking about a half season’s worth of data.
But if you look at only the 2014 season, there are a couple of red flags. Should we worry?
His strikeout rate is way down (18.2%) and his walk rate is slightly up (8.8%) over last season, and last season wasn’t his best work. We’re talking about a 7% drop in K rate and 2% increase in walk rate from his 2011-12 peaks. That’s more balls in play and more free bases. Fortunately, he’s suppressing home runs extremely well so far this season, which means his ERA and FIP look great. But his xFIP is a gaudy 4.37, which isn’t encouraging. If his HR/FB% regresses back to his career norm, his 2.48 ERA is going to increase along with it. Now Verlander has always been better than average when it comes to limiting home runs, but he simply cannot continue to allow a 1.9 HR/FB%. That’s not something of which a person is capable.
The reality is probably that his HR rate will jump but that his strikeout rate will join it, creating something of a balancing effect. Verlander hasn’t been getting extremely lucky, so it’s not like a huge number of hard hit balls are going to start falling and he’s going to wind up struggling to get through four innings. He’s also been worse against RHH than LHH, which is almost certainly something that won’t continue.
I’m not at all worried. His curveball has looked very good and he’s been in control during most of his starts. He’s preventing runs for now, and should start picking up more strikeouts as that becomes necessary.