Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.
-John F. Kennedy
Justin Verlander is already assured of a spot on the short list of Detroit Tigers pitching greats once he completes his run in Detroit. He has thrilled Tigers fans in numerous ways in his time. Two no-hitters with several near misses as well, playoff series clinching masterpieces, Rookie of the Year, a Cy Young Award winner, and an MVP Award just make out the first page. We could go on.
Things were rolling along smoothly through 2012 and then just prior to the 2013 season Verlander signed the contract. The one that sets up a guy forever. The dream deal. The Tigers proffered that deal two full seasons before they really had to and despite the inherent risk involved, it seemed like a reasonable chance for the Tigers. Verlander was a stud's stud. The guy you could count on to be the horse to ride for a few more years.
Sure...the end of the deal might look bad down the road, but the early years were a sure thing. Right?
Then the 2013 season happened. Cracks appeared. Verlander's ERA took a jump up. The big velocity was waning. The dominant guy wasn't around much. Only a swift finish to the season and big time playoff run "saved" the campaign for him.
2014 was shaping up to be the year where he took the good finish from the year before and rode it into a better season to come. How did that go?
The 2014 Campaign
Verlander took the torch he lit at the end of 2013 and actually ran with it out of the gate this season. Sometimes its easy to forget that he started strong in '14.
Quality Starts were the norm. Verlander tossed seven of them in his first eight starts (and in the eighth he pitched five innings with zero earned runs). After holding the Twins to two runs in seven innings on May 9th, his ERA stood at a rock solid 2.67. "Verlander is back" was a common idea among many.
On a personal note, I saw him pitch during this stretch in Kansas City on May 4th. He had a no-hitter into the fifth inning and looked great. He induced plenty of soft-contact on the day as the Tigers rolled to a 9-4 win behind homers by Nick Castellanos and Alex Avila.
After watching that performance and looking at the body of work to that point, you could have floored me with a feather that day if you told me by the next time he faced the Royals on June 16th his ERA would have ballooned to 4.98.
Suddenly, Verlander could not avoid the big inning. Crooked numbers were commonplace as his ERA skyrocketed. After allowing only one homer in his first 8 starts, he would allow at least one (and sometimes two) in 12 of his next 16.
Then it looked like total disaster struck. Verlander could not answer the bell for the second inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates on August 11th. It sounded for all the world like bad news was coming. An MRI followed and everyone breathed a sigh of relief that the shoulder report came back fairly clean.
Verlander would miss the first start of his career, but disaster was avoided. He would make every start thereafter, but a definite vulnerability was attached to him that had never been before.
Not quite to the extent of 2013, Verlander did regroup down the stretch in September. While the Tigers were in the heat of a division race with the Royals, he cut his walk rate to very low levels over the final month and that was a big reason he was able to contribute some solid starts in five of his final six efforts.
'C-' might be a bit kind. If someone wants to argue for a lower grade, I won't put up the biggest fight.
But he did start the season pretty well and finished up okay. The vast middle of the season though was very weak.
However, he did post a 3.3 fWAR season, which isn't awful. Plus, in a different statistical era we would look at his 15-12 record on the back of a Topps or Donruss baseball card and not worry nearly as much!
The most mystifying numbers for Verlander in 2014 were shown in the complete inability to dominate right-handed batters. For the season righties smacked Verlander around at a stunning clip of .318/.361/.489. We can bat around plenty of other numbers, but a lot of the story is told there. If he can't even remotely contain righty bats then it's "Katie bar the door" (obligatory Kate Upton reference, sorry).
Verlander's innings count of 206 was his lowest since 2008. That innings number fell for a third straight year after peaking at 251 in his tour de force season in 2011.
Verlander's strike out percentage tumbled for a third straight year as well to rather ordinary 17.8 percent. It's probably no coincidence that his average fastball velocity also declined for a fifth consecutive campaign. Verlander with an average heater over 95 miles per hour was a joy to watch. Armed with an average fastball at just a shade over 92 miles per hour seems to have made him a far more human guy on most nights.
To be fair, Verlander did undergo surgery on his core muscles in the off-season prior to '14. Much was made of his not being able to adhere to his usual off-season conditioning program. This must be noted and considered of course. But again, that surgery didn't prevent him from getting off to a very solid start for the season. It didn't outwardly hamper him early on. Only once his struggles erupted did you hear much about the operation again. Did the lack of offseason conditioning have an adverse effect on his ability to pitch through the dog days of summer? The Tigers can certainly hope that was the case.
All is not lost. But make no mistake: Justin Verlander has reached a crossroads in his career. Change is coming. It probably has to. Unless some of the old intimidating mojo returns, Verlander has to get on a new road.
Yes, it's been two seasons of frustration and rough patches for Verlander.
Yes, the new contract for large cash is only just now kicking in. The Tigers are married to Verlander for the foreseeable future. His deal runs through at least 2019.
That's okay. He's avoided the disabled list his whole career to this point despite the shoulder hiccup this season. The Tigers can count on him to take the ball every fifth day most likely.
Will he make the necessary changes to his game moving forward to compete as he ages? One would think so. No one questions Verlander's will to compete. He's not going to take getting his brains bashed in numerous times each season very lightly.
Expect some changes. Plenty of pitchers have engineered a successful second act to a career necessitated by realizing the once wondrous natural gifts may be diminishing. It's time for him to take that next step and alter his approach. Pitchers can compete and succeed at Verlander's current velocity levels and he has the repertoire to utilize once he makes some adjustments. It's now up to him and Jeff Jones to come up with a plan and begin to implement it.
He'll need to report in proper shape this year after being able to adhere to his normal conditioning. He'll need a new plan against right-handed batters. Perhaps that will include a new pitch such as a cutter. Verlander didn't alter his basic mix of pitches despite the diminished velocity in '14. Something might give there.
Verlander still posted a FIP of 3.74. That's not all that bad. If he can get some of his velocity back assuming the surgery played a role in it dipping and get a few breaks behind him, he can be a productive pitcher again. Will he be "$28M per year productive" ever again? That's a tall order. But it's a sunk cost now.
First, the Tigers need Justin Verlander to take a simple step in the right direction. Then take another. We'll see how many steps he has left in the tank and how close he'll ever get back to his peak. The next act in his career starts now. Just because he's reached a cross-roads in his career, doesn't mean he can't choose the right path to take next.