Watching Justin Verlander during the 2013 season was somewhat frustrating. He struggled at times, but everything he did was qualified with the suffix "compared to his usual standards." His ERA was high ... compared to his usual standards. He didn't strike out that many hitters ... compared to his usual standards. Verlander was still one of the best pitchers in the American League and returned to form with a dominant performance against the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox in the postseason.
That seems to have gone out the window in 2014.
Verlander eased concerns over his offseason core muscle repair surgery with a scoreless spring, but did not look like his usual self early on. He tallied just five strikeouts to five walks in his first two starts, but ended the month of April with a 3-1 record and 2.48 ERA. His peripheral numbers were a little concerning, but given Verlander's past April struggles, a few extra walks were far from the worst case scenario.
Fast forward to Sunday, and things look as bleak as ever. Verlander was torched for nine runs (six earned) on 11 hits in 5 1/3 innings by the Texas Rangers. It was the second consecutive start that he has allowed 11 hits, the third consecutive start that he has given up at least five earned runs, and the sixth time he has finished a start with less than five strikeouts this season. Simply put, this is not the Justin Verlander we are looking for.
One of the prevailing theories behind Verlander's struggles this season is that he is starting to hit the downswing of his career. Those that buy into this theory cite his declining velocity and career workload as evidence that we are never going to see the Verlander of 2011 and 2012 ever again. While we may never see that sort of dominance from Verlander again, I think he is far from "washed up," and that any changes in velocity are a product of mechanical issues and a concerted effort to rely on location and movement. Plus, there is no way for us to analyze this beyond looking at radar gun readings, which would make for a very boring post.
Verlander's issues likely are related to the core muscle repair surgery he had last January. We saw Miguel Cabrera get off to a slow start after having a similar operation -- by the same surgeon, no less -- and are just now seeing the real Cabrera round into form. Verlander's surgery came more than two months after Cabrera's, and frankly, it's surprising that he was able to get back into shape in time to start on Opening Day. His first spring training start came on March 11, less than nine weeks after his operation. Opening Day came a little more than three weeks later, a mere 81 days after surgery.
Based on what we have seen, it looks like Verlander still isn't 100-percent healthy. He even admitted the possibility after Sunday's loss.
"Every now and then, it’ll get a little sore. I know Torii (Hunter) had a similar surgery and he said it took him a year to really feel he was back. I don’t feel pain when I’m throwing. It could still be weak, who knows? That’s not something I can concern myself with."
One trend suggesting Verlander isn't fully recovered from his offseason surgery is how poorly he has performed late in games. Throughout his career, Verlander's numbers have not gotten worse when his pitch count gets elevated. For instance, in pitches 76-100 in a game, opposing batters are hitting .254/.311/.400 in his career. This season, those numbers have risen to a gaudy .358/.394/.478. That .872 OPS is nearly identical to the .873 OPS he has allowed when his pitch count reaches triple digits. Here is the overall breakdown by OPS for his career and 2014.
This could just be a coincidence -- 11 starts is still a fairly small sample -- but it seems that Verlander's endurance isn't what it has been in the past. Even during his up-and-down 2013 season, he did not show any appreciable splits based on pitch count.
Mechanically, Verlander is also showing signs of weakness. His first pitch against the Baltimore Orioles on May 14 was mechanically sound, though low for a ball.
However, the 76th pitch -- which happened to come at the start of the Orioles' five-run fifth inning -- shows him laboring a bit. His right shoulder lags behind as he strides forward, leading to the ball tailing high and outside of Bryan Holaday's target.
Compare this to his start against Baltimore in 2013, which came at a similar point in the season, and we see that Verlander's mechanics are similar at pitch one and 80.
While Verlander doesn't follow through well in that last GIF -- it almost looks like he lost his balance somewhat -- his motion looks more fluid than the pitch to David Lough in the second GIF, and his shoulder doesn't lag behind. This hitch in Verlander's 2014 delivery is likely caused by a bit of weakness somewhere in his abdomen or groin. He seems hesitant to push off his back leg and follow through, a movement pattern that is magnified once his pitch count gets elevated.
Fortunately for Verlander and the Tigers, this is correctable, and should work itself out once he regains the strength and endurance in the surgically repaired area in his core. Unfortunately, there is no telling how long that will take, especially if he keeps pitching every five days. We can hope that his timetable for a full return to Verlander-like dominance is shorter than Hunter's suggestion of a year, but it could be another up-and-down season for Verlander as he continues to work out his mechanics.