Is Justin Verlander still an ace?

Duane Burleson

Justin Verlander's early season struggles may have put his ace distinction in jeopardy.

It wasn't long ago that Justin Verlander was the best pitcher in baseball.

Notice I didn't say arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He stood alone in a class of pitchers that no one else had the ability to match. No one.

You could counter that statement with Clayton Kershaw. And I would tell you that Kershaw was given the advantage of facing the opposing pitcher three times a game. You could make a case for Felix Hernandez, but King Felix was pitching in meaningless games. David Price might even surface in an argument, but I would tell you to go home, because you are obviously drunk.

Justin Verlander wasn't just an ace, he was the ace.

From 2009  to 2012, Justin Verlander won a Cy Young Award (finishing in the top three on two other occasions), an MVP Award, was a four-time All-Star, won 78 games, and was worth 26.1 WAR.

But, there were times during the 2013 season that he appeared like his reign of superiority may be coming to an end. He was being out-pitched by his teammate and soon to be Cy Young recipient Max Scherzer, his fastball velocity was down, his WHIP went up, and he was having trouble pitching late into games.

Verlander led the league with six complete games in 2012. In 2013, he had zero.

Even then, it was difficult to be too concerned about a pitcher facing that type of regression. Because, he was still good. Verlander pitched the 2013 season at age 30, and still managed to put up a 3.46 ERA, had almost a full strikeout per inning at 8.9, and his 3.28 FIP put him in the same company as Yu Darvish and Lance Lynn. If that's regression, I'll take it.

The 2014 season, however, has been a different story.

Entering tonight's game against the White Sox, Verlander's numbers look more like what you would expect from the Tigers fourth starter not their ace. Despite his average fastball velocity being back up around 94 mph, he has had trouble locating pitches and his WHIP is the highest of his career.

Just a few weeks ago, Rob Rogacki took a deeper look at Verlander's struggles this season. It's suggested that he may not be completely right coming off of surgery. There is also the possibility that the 200-plus innings he pitches every year are starting to have an effect on him.

Verlander isn't buying it though.

"I don’t feel fatigued ... it’s not like, at my age, I’m going to start dropping velocity or anything. That’s why I think it’s more of a mechanical thing than anything. That’s why I’ve been working so hard to try to get it to click." (Jon Paul Morosi)

Much like Verlander, the Tigers have been in a slide lately. They have looked sloppy and unfocused, even if that's not the case. History would suggest that there is still plenty of time for this team to right the ship. With 102 games left in the season, one big win could change their trajectory.

The same goes for Justin Verlander. He still has roughly 20 starts left in the season, and a big performance tonight could change his season's outlook. He has time to get his mechanics or his head or whatever is troubling him together and turn it all around. Come October, we very well may have forgotten his early season struggles.

So, is he an ace? Honestly, it doesn't matter.

If the Tigers are in the playoffs and Verlander is pitching well enough to have helped put them there, you can call him anything you want.

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