With the acquisition of Alfredo Simon, many critics have placed the success of the 2015 Detroit Tigers starting rotation into the hands of Anibal Sanchez and Justin Verlander. It seems likely that David Price will continue his dominance in the American League as he has done for many years, and we are sure to expect Shane Greene and Simon to be… well, exactly what they are- 4th and 5th starters. With this, the overall success depends on whether Sanchez and Verlander can produce at the level that they are capable of, and bring back the dominant rotation that Tigers fans desire to have with their team.
For Sanchez, the issue is fairly easy to identify- stay healthy. He performed well last year, accumulating 3.4 WAR in his time in the rotation. But as injuries took hold, he was left with only 126 innings pitched. Without doubt, if Sanchez can remain on the field, he should return to the form of one of the league’s top pitchers.
The greater mystery lies with Justin Verlander. With the excitement of the off season and the dreams of who may or may not join the team, there is one player that doesn’t require such imagination and that is Justin Verlander. We know that through the good, bad, and the ugly we will see him on this team. Perhaps the only more certain Tigers member would be Miguel Cabrera. After that, Verlander is all but a lock to have a roster spot from now until he retires. With this in mind, the issue of bringing his performance back to the vintage "Must-See JV" becomes paramount.
Many have tried to pinpoint what has gone wrong with Verlander in recent times. Most point to his velocity decline which surely is resulting in better contact and more base hits. Indeed, his BABIP has increased as of late. Last year it was at .317 which is nearly identical to the .316 mark the year before. However, these are considerably different from the results in 2011 and 2012, which were .236 and .273 respectively. One would then also notice his "drastic velocity decline" and conclude that the difference between a good year and a bad year for Justin Verlander is that he isn’t throwing as hard, resulting in harder contact and more hits on balls in play.
However, batting average of balls in play and velocity are not true measures of performance but measures of change. A BABIP value above the career average doesn’t suggest the pitcher is doing poorly but instead suggests that the pitcher is due for regression to his career average. Some pitchers have success with high velocity while others have success with low velocity. The 2015 Cy Young award winner will not be the pitcher with the highest velocity and the lowest BABIP. That would be an outrage. These metrics, while still valuable, must be seen in proper light. These values point to a change in the pitcher, and don’t necessarily result in a career down turning level of doom.
For Verlander, the increase in BABIP and lowered velocity do seem to fit together. Additionally, the numbers agree with the health issues he has had in his core, which would certainly have effect on his velocity. His continued healing from surgery likely had an effect on the 2014 bottom line. But there is more to the Verlander story, and more change that can be found with the help of these metrics. While 2014 overall was not a strong campaign for Justin, there were strong stretches, even full months that demonstrated a strong pitcher. For example, in the month of September he had a FIP of 2.84 while giving up a slash line of .259/.293/.383. This was a welcome sight in comparison to the month of June which produced a slash line of .302/.376/.488.
One observation that can be seen in JV’s split stats is in the results when he falls behind early in the count. Last year, Justin faced 893 batters in total. He started off the batter with a strike 443 times (49.6%) and with a ball 341 times (38.2%). These tendencies compare to his career averages of going 0-1 at 50% of the time and falling 1-0 in the count 39% of the time. In other words, Verlander appears to be hitting the strike zone at a similar rate as he has throughout his career. He’s neither falling behind nor jumping ahead at any significantly different rate.
What is significant, however, is how those at bats result. It is common to see a pitcher’s OBP against be increased after falling to a 1-0 count, which makes sense as these situations are one ball closer to a walk. To the horror of Tigers fans everywhere, JV gave up a frightening slash line of .325/.418/.524 after falling 1-0 in the count as opposed to a career average of .250/.353/.400. To put that into perspective, while his career average is facing a Nick Castellanos like hitter when falling behind, in 2014 the results reflected the Victor Martinez (near MVP) type numbers. Since these one ball counts are happening 40% of the time, this provides a huge difference in the overall results.
Many critics last year claimed that JV had trouble putting the hitters away as it got later in the count. The numbers don’t support this eye test. In fact, in 2014, he threw 1,431 pitches after falling behind 1-0, which is an average of 4.2 pitches per hitter. His career average for that same situation is about 4.4. His overall average was 3.8 pitchers per batter faced in 2014 which does compare to his career average of 3.9 pitchers per batter faced. Simply put, there is no narrative about throwing more pitches to get out batters, JV simply gave up more hits when he fell behind.
Thus the bottom line is simple and logical: struggling when falling behind to the tune of a 5.46 FIP is not a recipe for success. Expect him to regress back towards his career average of 4.75 FIP when falling behind 1-0. Odds are good that he will continue to find the strike zone about 60% of the time on the first pitch, which means he will be falling behind 40% of the time. What happens with that 40% makes a big difference in the long run. For the Tigers long time ace to have success in the 2015 season, he must be able to control the damage even when he finds himself in hitter friendly counts. If he fails to do so, it may wind up being another long season for the former MVP award winner.