It was August 11th and Verlander had just allowed five runs in the first inning. He didn’t look right and he was mulling around in the dugout holding a bat. They were going to send him up there to bunt, presumably, and he was going to try and stay in the game. Dickerson and Price opined that they thought he had the flu. It had been a trying summer for the erstwhile ace and he didn’t look right at all.
He bunted and then he came out of the game. The shortest start of his career. His contract had five more years and he was, by one definition, looking like one of the worst regular starting pitchers in baseball. The Justin Verlander who made opposing hitters reconsider their choice of career was gone.
And then it got worse. It wasn’t a stomach bug, but rather right shoulder soreness. If you follow baseball injuries close enough, that’s just about the worst initial diagnosis you can hear about a pitcher. This wasn’t just a downturn, we were looking at a career altering injury. Everything was about to change in Detroit.
But it didn’t. Verlander got a full exam that showed no structural damage. He missed a start, his first, but didn’t go on the disabled list. He came back and mixed in three very good starts among his final seven with decent signs of life in parts of the other four, including two excellent outings to end the 2014 regular season.
For a time, the playoff bullpen was a real possibility. With the injury to Sanchez and some signs of recovery, that talk has dampened. Verlander will get a chance to make his mark in October like he did in each of the past two seasons. Maybe he’ll shine. Maybe he’ll struggle. It’s hard to say at this point. His superhuman days are gone, but that doesn’t mean his valuable days are as well.
If you look at the body of work this year, it’s 206 innings, a 4.54 ERA, and a 3.74 FIP. That’s a lousy ERA and an average FIP but 200 average innings aren’t anything at which to sneeze. He didn’t have a good year, but he didn’t ruin everything either. His home run rate and walk rate were fine, but his strikeouts were way down (about 6%). His BABIP was up. His pitches were more hittable than ever.
There are a lot of reasons, but mostly we can circle back to the offseason surgery and his inability to devote enough time to strength training. Some of it’s probably age and normal decline, but he never really had the endurance to match his previous performances. It was a weaker Verlander. More contact. Better results against him. Less heat.
We’ve chronicled the problems. He didn’t have command. His secondary stuff was hit and miss. He couldn’t dial it up and blow it past anyone. He couldn’t put guys away and as a result they put more balls in play and his defense wasn’t exactly going to save the day.
It was a bad season by his standards, but what does it tell us about the future?
It’s rare for a pitcher to sustain greatness well into their thirties, but you also don’t expect steep decline. At the end of the line, he posted a 3.74 FIP which was his worst since 2008. You’re willing to accept some of that as injury driven, even if you don’t want to give him too much of a break. That’s a high ERA, but ERA is silly because earned runs and unearned runs are an arbitrary distinction. In total, he posted a 4.98 RA9. That’s not very good at all, but he was certainly the victim of bad defense. Also, he was the victim of a bullpen that allowed a ton of his inherited runners to score. Instead of charging him for every runner they allowed to score, let’s charge him for the run expectancy. In other words, if he leaves the bases loaded, charge him with 2.2 runs (roughly) instead of 3 if they score and 0 if they don’t.
Using that method, his RE24/9 was 4.41. Think about that. His runs allowed per 9 (using run expectancy, which charges for all of his full runs and the right share of his left runners) was lower than his ERA (not just his RA9) even after you park adjust. Not only was Verlander’s FIP telling you he pitched a little better than his ERA, but you can make that point even if you don’t assume average results on balls in play. You just have to look at how poorly his pen performed.
None of this absolves Verlander, it just softens the blow. He was really more of a slightly below average pitcher in 2014 than a terrible one. Given the injury, you can live with that. His days of running ERA- and FIP- around 70 are done, but he could easily be an 85 or so guy going forward. He has a diverse arsenal and the stuff is still good enough to get hitters out.
He needs a healthy core and lower half and he needs to get a little smarter. His days of winning Cy Young awards are probably over but his days of being effective aren’t. Maybe he’ll shine in October, but the overall body of work suggests he should at least be a good pitcher again next year. Probably not the $180 million ace, but a guy who could play the role of #2 on most teams is totally plausible.
It was a rough year for Verlander, but it wasn’t the fatal blow it appeared to be that August night in the Steel City.