Justin Verlander was not very good in 2014. He allowed a league-high 104 earned runs resulting in a 4.54 ERA. He gave up five runs or more on nine occasions. He only struck out 159 batters, his lowest total since 2006. His numbers in nearly every other statistical category were their worst since 2008, when Verlander went 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA. Jon gave him a 'C-' grade in our player report card series, and I thought that was kind.
There have been an inordinate number of articles written on Verlander's 2014 performance and whether it is a sign of age-related decline. I have argued that Verlander's subpar numbers are a result of the core muscle repair surgery he underwent in January, a surgery that he may have rushed back from. Others are more concerned, believing that Verlander will never be the super ace we saw in 2011 and 2012. And then there is a vocal minority that believes Kate Upton is the problem. Spoiler alert: she's not.
Verlander's salary increases to $28 million next season, and he is due to receive $140 million through 2019. The Tigers need him to bounce back. Even Mike Ilitch doesn't have enough 20s in his wallet to pay Verlander that much money if he is not producing.
In an attempt to maximize Verlander's effectiveness, ESPN's Diane Firstman made the argument that the Tigers should make Verlander a "super reliever" in 2015. Her argument is largely based on Verlander's subpar numbers in 2014, especially as his pitch count climbed.
However, even while recovering from the core surgery, Verlander was effective during the early portions of games, specifically with 50 or fewer pitches thrown. Here are his 2014 BA/OBP/SLG/OPS splits based on pitch count. Note the improvement in his second 25 pitches then a drop in performance after 50 pitches:
Pitches 1-25: .253/.302/.425/.727
Pitches 26-50: .255/.312/.348/.659
Pitches 51-75: .283/.361/.433/.794
Pitches 76-100: .294/.327/.454/.781
To her credit, Firstman eschews the idea of making Verlander a traditional 60 inning reliever, instead suggesting an old school "relief ace" type role. However, the idea is based entirely on one season of poor performance, and we are not sure to what extent Verlander's struggles were due to his ongoing recovery from core muscle repair surgery.
What's wrong with Justin Verlander?
Both the eye test and the numbers confirm the same thing: Justin Verlander has not been very good lately.
For instance, consider the above splits by pitch count. Verlander showed a decline in stamina in 2014, but his career splits are not so pronounced. Even in 2013 when Verlander struggled with his mechanics for much of the season, he barely showed any signs of decline as he got deeper into the game.
Pitches 1-25: .263/.339/.365/.704
Pitches 26-50: .260/.308/.367/.675
Pitches 51-75: .246/.343/.339/.683
Pitches 76-100: .261/.313/.432/.745
Pitches 101+: .219/.241/.362/.603
Realistically, the rest of the numbers Firstman cites are little more than statistical noise. Verlander's declining fastball velocity will affect him whether he is a starter or reliever -- if anything, it may be more limiting out of the bullpen -- and his contract is the same as well. The only thing that matters is whether Verlander's poor numbers after 50 pitches are a legitimate concern or just a result of his surgery last offseason. Given that 2014 was the first time we have seen any hint of Verlander losing steam as his pitch count elevates, I'm confident that the latter is true.
There is almost no chance that the Tigers put Verlander into the bullpen in 2015. They already have a couple of question marks at the back of the rotation in Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon, and aren't in a position to add another starting pitcher. David Price will likely leave via free agency next offseason, further increasing the need for Verlander to anchor the starting rotation.
What do you think? Does it make any sense to put Verlander in the bullpen?