Coming To Terms With Justin Verlander

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

An optimist and a pessimist walk into a sports bar. Justin Verlander is pitching. The pessimist looks at the radar gun, checks the stat line, and looks at the contact. He says to his friend, “What happened to Verlander? He’s terrible now.” The optimist looks back at him and says, “What do you mean, he’s top 20 in fWAR and has a 3.45 FIP, that’s pretty good!” Both are true, depending on your perspective.

The Verlander we knew from 2009 to 2012 is gone. He doesn’t have 101 in the chamber for the 8th inning strikeout. He doesn’t have all four pitches on most nights. He lives 90-93 and touches 95-96 when he reaches back. The bite on the breaking ball shows up occasionally rather than regularly. He gets tired now, apparently. The strikeouts are down, the walks are up, the hard contact lives. Justin Verlander, best pitcher on the planet, is gone. The pessimist is right.

But so is the optimist. Let me write the last paragraph again in a different way:

Verlander sits 90-93 and reaches back for 95-96 when he needs it. He throws a curveball, slider, and changeup, all of which flash plus plus, but are more typically above average major league pitches. He’s not a huge strikeout guy, but is certainly capable of going on a run. He’s had some trouble stranding runners and is having more issues with lefties, but on balance he’s sporting a league average ERA and slightly better FIP after a couple of rocky starts. The optimist is right.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Justin Verlander in his current form is a still a very good pitcher. He’s had a bad string of three starts, but no one thinks the last two weeks represent Verlander going forward. They aren’t meaningless, but you should never project a player to perform at their best forever or their worst forever. We’re probably going to see a lot more 7 inning, 3 R starts than 7 inning 2 R starts. That’s okay. Verlander is 31. The reign of terror wasn’t going to last. We knew that. We talked ourselves into two extra years, but we knew he’d come back to Earth.

I don’t think we can fix Verlander. He’ll be better going forward than he is right now, but it’s wrong to expect him to be a Cy Young starter anymore. He’ll still have four or five starts in a row that will be excellent like last year’s postseason, but things are catching up with him. He has a little less in the tank than he used to. The stuff isn’t quite as good. He’ll tweak things and get out of the present funk, but there will be more funks in the future because that’s what happen when you age.

We’re done with Justin Verlander the 7-9 win player and now living with Justin Verlander 4-5 win player. That’s still plenty good. Just because he isn’t the Verlander of old doesn’t mean he won’t be good. And he’ll learn to adjust. He still has above average stuff. The problem is that he’s trying to pitch like he still has elite stuff. He need to change his approach. The walks will come down. The strikeouts will come back a bit. It’ll get better as he matures.

Last year, for all our strife, Verlander was a 5.0 WAR starter. This year he’s actually on pace for close to that. ZiPS thinks he’ll do it and Steamer things 3.5 to 4.0 is more realistic. Even if he walks the lower bound, he’s still an above average major league starter. Still plenty good enough to help the team win.

There’s a lot of concern about the size of his contract given his declining skills, but he doesn’t have to be that good for the deal to come out fine. He’s got 6 years and $160 million left if you include this season. On the free agent market, a win will cost you about $6 million (and it’s trending toward $7M). So Verlander needs no more than 27 WAR from now until the end of 2019. That’s a 4.5 WAR pace per season to make the deal a fair value factoring in no inflation. That’s not out of the question. If you call it $7M/WAR, it’s a 3.8 WAR pace. That seems like the right expectation. Verlander can earn the contract, or get somewhere close.

He’s done being the man, but that doesn’t mean he’s worthless. You can’t overreact to three starts, but you also have to accept the overall trend. Maybe he’s still recovering from the injury, but I think these are just normal signs of aging and a pitcher going through a transition from power pitcher to regular human being.

He’s going to be good, he’s just not going to be the guy you lined up to see. He’ll have those nights. He might even have a lot of them. But the guy who owned the league is gone. The guy who’s pretty good and will occasionally make you remember those summer nights chasing no-hitters is still here.

There’s a lot left in Verlander, but our expectations need to adjust. The fact that he’s been this good and this durable for this long is some sort of medical miracle. Just look around at all of the promising young starters losing UCLs. We made it through Verlander’s peak without losing him for a single start. Imagine that. He hasn’t missed a start in nine major league seasons. He’ll finish this year somewhere near 49-50 career fWAR. He’s probably going to the Hall of Fame. We were treated to the greatest show in sports. There will be a lot of great nights, but they won’t all be great anymore.

The pessimist and the optimist are both right. Verlander’s done and Verlander’s fine. There’s no magic fix this time, but there doesn’t need to be. Nothing that good lasts forever.


4 responses

  1. I agree 100% with your assessment, Neil. There is no doubt that the days of JV being able to throw a no-no on any given start are gone. But, that still doesn’t mean he is no longer capable of throwing a few gems (see Josh Beckett’s last start).

    We always used to hear about how former flamethrowers got injured and had to adjust and become “pitchers” and not “throwers.” Luckily, JV has remained healthy but I believe he has already begun that transition. Even over the last two seasons it had become obvious that JV was being more economical with his pitches. Utilizing location and using his speed only when necessary. I think because of the injury that transition has accelerated.

    I do think JV is still recovering from his surgery and he is also known for his frequent tweaking. I am confident he will finish the season strong and continue his dominance in the playoffs. He has that competitive edge that pushes him to new levels on the big stage. We also know that he wants to go out and dominate every start. I think he’ll continue to be an above average SP for a long time.

  2. Thank you for the comprehensive analysis.

    IMO, JV just needs to focus on his strengths right now and not let arrogance get to him. He cannot blow batters away anymore. But he can still freeze them with his great curve ball.

    If his uses the “arsenal” that he has remaining, he can still contend for a Cy Young in my opinion. He can also get deep into games.

    Perhaps I am more optimistic that most. I just traded Sonny Gray to get him in my Fantasy league.

  3. […] award winner. Even Tigers armed with advanced knowledge of advanced stats have been talking about coming to terms with the “new” Justin Verlander, one who lacks dominant fastball velocity. Now, these are all […]

  4. […] if you looked at his stuff in a vacuum, you wouldn’t be worried. A couple of weeks back, I wrote about the need to accept that Verlander is going to have more rough starts as he ages and that his days as a superstar were behind him. That’s still true. I’m not worried […]

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