Verlander’s Last Ten Starts And Hoping Against History

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

There have been no shortage of Justin Verlander Opinions over the last three seasons. From 2009 to 2012, he was probably the best pitcher in the game. Then, in 2013, a rocky summer surrounded a good spring and fall, leaving some to panic and some to hold firm. If you looked at his fielding independent numbers in 2013, the lows weren’t nearly so bad and most of the struggles could be attributed to a bit of mechanical funk. He wasn’t JUSTIN VERLANDER, but he was perfectly fine.

Then came 2014. It wasn’t as bad as it looked if you’re an ERA kind of person, but it wasn’t good. It was a bad year and it wasn’t encouraging that it happened after offseason surgery and his first missed start, due to shoulder inflammation. There were concerns! There was panic. And then more offseason injuries and such and about two and a half months on the DL. Then he came out of the gate struggling. And the panic set in big. The end was basically here, just two seasons into a seven year contract that would pay him $180 million. Uh oh.

Of course you’re aware that Verlander has righted the ship and now has a 2.3 fWAR in 114.1 innings in 2015. Over his last ten outings, he’s tossed 72.1 innings with a 2.24 ERA and 2.48 FIP. The full season numbers are not Cy Young stuff, but it’s borderline All-Star level at age 32. If you didn’t know anything about Verlander in 2013 or 2014, looking at him in 2012 and 2015 would look exactly right.

As I wrote at TigsTown earlier this year, the concern with stud pitchers isn’t so much that they randomly become terrible, it’s that their durability vanishes. As I’ve said all along, I’ve never discounted Verlander’s ability to have a series of good outings, but as he wears down, the odds that he stays healthy and productive for entire seasons dwindles.

Clearly, he wasn’t going to throw 99 mph with three great secondary pitchers forever. The stuff was always going to fade, but we assumed he’d be able to adjust and maintain his inning for inning ability in the context of fewer innings per year. At least that was always my take. He would age gracefully, but we would see less of him.

Yet the story of the last three years, this boom and bust Verlander, has been a little odd. I think the convenient explanation was health. Verlander just hasn’t been fully healthy since 2012 and now that he has himself in order, he’s pitching well once again.

Although there’s another explanation, one that nearly drove me to violence when I heard it. Over the last few weeks, Verlander has been quoted saying that he’s finally getting into scouting reports and pre-game preparation.

I’ve been beating this drum for two years. As his stuff declines, he has to learn to pitch differently. Being naive, I assumed he was working on that from the time of his earliest struggles. Apparently, he wasn’t. Apparently, Verlander stubbornly tried to be the old version of himself for two years while he gave up homers and couldn’t get punch outs.

Bless him for finally adapting, eventually.

But has he truly turned a corner? Can we believe that this Verlander is going to be the Verlander of the future? Is what we’ve seen for the last few weeks the truth or a mirage?

To some extent, we can’t answer that. The odds are simply against Verlander from a health standpoint. Let’s say he’s finally healthy and capable for the first time in more than two years. Even if that’s true and it explains his success, 32 year olds with his career workload are near locks to break down. Even if he’s made adjustments, the odds of another 180 inning season, much less a 220 inning season are low. It’s the reality of aging.

But let’s set that aside and assume we can distinguish between a healthy Verlander and an injured one. Is the healthy Verlander the Verlander we’ve been seeking? From a results standpoint, he’s certainly pitched like himself over the last few weeks and has been decidedly above average overall this year. His strikeout rate isn’t Cy Young caliber for the full season, but over his last ten games it’s looking like the Verlander of old. And that was missing last year. It’s hard to fake a good strikeout rate for the many innings.

Take a look at his rolling strikeout and walk rates over his career. This is every 10-game stretch of his career, labeled based on the last game of the streak. So the last data point represents his last ten games. Start 100 represents starts 91-100, etc.

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How badly do you want to believe in this? His walk rate over the last ten is almost the best 10-game walk rate of his career. The strikeout rate isn’t on par with his best but it’s in the neighborhood of all of those other good seasons. You can see the ugly stretch in 2013 and horrible 2014 and then you can see it rising from the ashes now. (FYI: Playoffs excluded)

We all want to believe that Verlander can be great again. True, sustained greatness is probably out of reach. He’s not going to be a 7-8 win pitcher again. That’s just not likely at his age. It’s not impossible, but so much would have to go right.

But can he be a 3-4 win pitcher for the next few years? That’s not at all out of the question if he has truly come around to pitching to his current skill set rather than the one he had when he was a younger man. He can touch 96, but he doesn’t sit there. He doesn’t have 101 when there are two on and one out. But his arsenal is still very good and if he has finally learned how to get outs with lesser stuff, he should remain effective.

When he was struggling in 2013 and 2014, I remained optimistic that his days of usefulness were not over. And today, as the entire world gets back on the Verlander train, I want to exercise some caution. Clearly, he’s not the disaster he was at times in 2014, but even a revived Verlander is still 32 years old coming off two injury plagued seasons.

There will be plenty of good nights for Verlander, but it would be foolish to think they’re all going to be like this or that there won’t be more DL trips and missed starts.

There is plenty about which to be hopeful, but there is also a reality to accept. This is what Verlander can be when he is healthy and in sync, but pitchers fall apart. There’s virtually nothing more certain than that. Counting on him to be the dominant workhouse for the next few seasons is asking too much.

A version of Verlander is back. That’s worth celebrating, but it’s also worth acknowledging that he can’t escape injuries and the effects of trying to pitch through them. The last few weeks have been encouraging, but they don’t erase what’s coming. They merely remind us that it’s not over.

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