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Detroit Tigers player preview: Justin Verlander could be the key to 2015 season

After losing Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello in the offseason, Tigers need Justin Verlander to bounce back in 2015.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

A once historically good starting pitching rotation for the Detroit Tigers has been overhauled. Max Scherzer has left via free agency, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, and Drew Smyly have been traded, and Justin Verlander is coming off arguably the roughest season of his career. The club added David Price, who is now the ace of the staff, but if they're going to be anything close to what they have been in recent seasons, Detroit is going to need Verlander to rebound. He doesn't necessarily need to regain the form that won him a Cy Young Award and MVP honors in 2011, but he needs to be a whole lot better than he was in 2014.

Verlander had core muscle repair surgery in January 2014, just a month before pitchers reported to spring training. His entire offseason workout routine was disrupted, and he entered the season cold turkey, never really getting his game on-track. He finished the year with a 4.54 ERA, a 1.40 WHIP, and a 3.74 FIP. Each of those numbers were his highest since 2008.

While Verlander posted a nearly identical home run rate and lower walk rate than in 2013, his strikeout rate dropped from 23.5 percent to 17.8 percent. More balls being put in play meant more hits -- and, by extension, more runs scored against Verlander. He was somewhat victimized by a subpar defense behind him, which is also exacerbated by the drop in strikeouts. His ERA ended up being a full run higher than it was in 2013.

On a positive note, Verlander was still the workhorse that he has always been. For the eighth season in a row, he logged over 200 innings pitched and over 30 starts. Despite his core muscle repair surgery, his 206 innings ranked 12th in the American League. By one measure, Verlander was still a top-20 pitcher, posting 2.9 fWAR. Baseball Reference rates him much lower, at 1.1 WAR. By either measure, 2014 was not a typical season for Verlander.

Verlander has gradually been losing some velocity on what was a 95.6 mile-per-hour fastball in 2009. The most recent drop of 0.9 miles per hour from 2013 to 2014 left his average velocity at 93.1 miles per hour. He threw the four-seamer 350 fewer times last season, and his overall pitch count was lower for the season. The number of pitches per batter and per inning were also down. His batting average allowed on balls in play (BABIP) remained constant with the previous season. However, more balls in play with the same batting average allowed yields more hits, and more fly balls yield more home runs.

The Tigers are hoping that a return to the normal offseason workout regimen -- not to mention an upgraded defense -- will help Verlander to close the gap between his 2014 numbers and his All-Star performances of seasons past. Verlander admits that he does not expect to regain all the velocity on his fastball, but the early signs from spring training provided cause for optimism.

Just as it looked like all systems were in check for the 2015 season, Verlander missed his last spring training start with a slight strain in his triceps muscle. He has been placed on the 15-day disabled list, for the first time in his career but Verlander is hoping that he will only miss one start. He is eligible to return to action on April 12, and he hopes to start on that date in Cleveland against the Indians.

Contract Status

Verlander signed a five-year contract extension before the 2013 season that runs through 2019. He will receive a salary of $28 million for each of the 2015 through 2019 seasons, with a vesting team option for the 2020 season. He has performance incentives, including a $100,000 bonus for making the All-Star team, and he has a full no-trade clause. He will be the highest paid Tiger in 2015.

Stats and Projections
Season IP ERA WHIP FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Career 218.1* 3.53 1.21 3.43 8.33 2.78 0.79
2014 206.0 4.54 1.40 3.74 6.95 2.84 0.79
Steamer 204.0 3.88 1.26 4.02 7.17 2.66 0.80
ZiPS 202.1 3.78 1.27 3.43 8.14 2.67 1.08

*Average 2006-2014

The Tigers, winners of four consecutive division titles, have been anchored by the strongest starting pitching rotation in the league for most of that time. Entering the 2015 season, the rotation is not nearly as strong as it once was -- at least on paper -- but a bounce-back performance from Verlander should at least give them the strongest rotation in their division once again.