After four solid starts in a row Justin Verlander struck a bit of fear into the hearts of Detroit Tigers fans last night when the Baltimore Orioles roughed him up. During the month of May, JV saw his ERA jump from 1.93 to 3.66 over the span of just two starts.
He seemed to right the ship until last night, when the hard-hitting O’s hung 7 hits (2 homers) and 5 earned runs on him in just 5 innings of work, dropping his record to 8-5 in the process. Verlander’s season long ERA is now 3.72 with a shady 1.35 WHIP. Consider that in 2011 and ’12 his WHIP was 0.92 and 1.06 respectively.
The translation? He is giving up hits by the barrel-full and walking more than he’s used to. To find a season of comparable stats you’d probably have to go back to his rookie season of 2006 when he finished 17-9 with a 3.63 ERA and 1.33 WHIP.
Verlander’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) allowed this year is .344. The highest it has ever been in a full season for the franchise player was .319 back in 2009. So is this an indicator of Verlander being unlucky or simply easier to hit? His lifetime BABIP is .287.
A closer examination of his numbers this year reveals some interesting factoids. First, his strikeout/9 inning ratio is at an all-time high of 10.37. Yet his 3.13 walks/9 would be his highest mark by a long shot with the exception of his wobbly 2008 campaign. However, his home run and ground ball rates are right on par with his norm.
Some fans point to his decreased velocity as a reason for his lack of success. Last year he averaged 94.3 MPH on his heater. This year he’s at 92.6. He did show in Tuesday night’s loss that he can still ramp it up to 97 when needed, but it doesn’t seem to come along with the same command we saw over the past few seasons. Another factor leading to the overall decrease in fastball speed is that he isn’t lasting as long into games as he did in 2011 and ’12. He already has 5 starts this season in which he hasn’t lasted past the 5th inning. 100 pitches and 6+ innings used to be his floor and the later innings were when he would dial the fastball up to 97-100 MPH. Last longer and the overall velocity may increase along with the innings.
Verlander, recipient of a contract worth around $200M, has essentially performed as Detroit’s 4th best starter this year. That is not a proper return on investment. Will the overly competitive athlete that he is be able to step up his game?
From my perspective, command seems to be his primary issue this year. He will follow up a nasty curve ball on the black with a fastball way out of the zone. Or he’ll laser beam two straight fastballs on the inside corner and then hang the curveball. JV’s ability to command his elite arsenal was what raised his game over the past two years. His inability to do that with similar consistency in 2013 is exactly why he has fallen a few rungs from the elite.
Is it mental? A confidence thing? That seems very possible. Is it something personal at play? We’ll probably never know that answer, but something is different. The tenacious bulldog who used to toe the mound with an air of ‘you can’t touch me’ has been replaced with a guy who is searching for the proper flow and feel.
It certainly isn’t time to panic in regards to Justin Verlander, but it might be time to pay closer attention to what is holding him back.
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