I’ve written before, and said countless times on Twitter that I’m pretty sure 2009-2012 Justin Verlander is gone for good. That doesn’t mean he won’t be good again, it just means he’s done being the best pitcher in the league. As he ages and his body starts to fail him a little bit, he’s going to need to learn to pitch with a slightly diminished arsenal, and that’s going to take a little time. Yeah, he’s been working on things all season and he’s starting to look better, but he’s not anywhere close to the “you just stole my bike” level Verlander we once knew.
That’s okay. Time marches on, but let’s look at his stat line from 2014 for a moment. He’s going to throw 220 innings or so, so that’s not a big problem. His walk rate (7.8%) is better than last year and while it’s worse than 2011-2012 Verlander, it wouldn’t look out of place during the rest of his career. He’s preventing home runs just fine. His BABIP is higher than his peak, but it’s totally normal.
He’s allowing too many runs because he’s not striking anyone out. He has a 16.8% strikeout rate, which is not only much worse than his 27% peak but it’s substantially worse than his 2013 dip. Verlander used to live in the 24-27% range. It’s fine to take a step back, but this is just a crazy step back. It helps that he’s inducing a higher number of popups than previously, but five extra popups doesn’t offset the strikeout drop.
Let’s play a game. Verlander has pitched 157.2 innings, he’s struck out 115, walked and hit 57, and given up 16 home runs. He has a 4.08 FIP based on those numbers and a 4.57 ERA to boot. Let’s see how many extra strikeouts it would take to get him to a 3.40 FIP. That would still be a decline, but a more reasonable one. It would take about 50 more strikeouts to do so.
Right he now he’s struck out 115 of his 684 hitters for a 16.8 K%. If he punched out 165 of 684 (a 24% rate), he’s be in business, but there would also be a compounding effect of those strikeouts because it would lead to fewer batters per inning, so you might actually be able to get away with 35 or so extra strikeouts instead of 50.
In other words, Verlander needs about one to two more strikeouts per game to get to a place where he can be really successful. If you go back 9 starts (after the two 7 run affairs), Verlander’s ERA and FIP look better but that’s because he cut the walks not because he increased the strikeouts. This is a pretty real concern.
My theory from earlier in the year still holds. He needs to learn to strike batters out without a 99 mph fastball up in the zone. He can locate there with 95 and that simply isn’t as deadly, so he has to set hitters up in different ways and this is especially true late in game with men on base. That used to be vintage Verlander. Two out, one out, and the game on the line – he’d reach back and gas somebody. He can’t do it anymore.
Once Verlander got to two strikes in 2011-2013, he would end up striking you out about 41-45% of the time. This year, it’s just 34%. That’s a 25 strikeout difference on the low end just from finishing guys off, not even considering anything about getting into better counts. Batters used to put the ball in play about 33% of the time after Verlander got them to two strikes. This year, it’s 45%. They’re swinging less, whiffing less, and taking fewer called strikes once he puts them on the ropes.
He’s maxing out at 98 and averaging more like 93 in this situations compared to 101 and 96 from years past. And the contact they do make is better.
Verlander needs to find a way to finish hitters off. If he can get those 25 strikeouts back, it will get him most of the way there. He’s not going to be a superstar again mostly likely, but he’s got plenty of years left of very good. It doesn’t matter what he has a 4.57 ERA right now. He needs to pitch better down the stretch, in the postseason, and into the future. Forget the results so far, he needs to find a new way to finish off hitters. Maybe that comes back when his core is fully healed as some suggest, but learning the Doug Fister swingback fastball or making use of the Anibal Sanchez changeup in those situations will help. Maybe he should toy with a cutter. Being less predictable is probably the key, but it’s never one thing when talking about pitch selection.
Solving the strikeout problem is the key to everything, it’s just a matter of figuring it out.