Justin Verlander is one of the all-time great Tigers. You will not find me arguing against that fact. However, as of Thursday's win in Oakland, the Tigers find themselves with a record of 28-20. Without Verlander. That's a 94-win pace. Every single March if someone asked you if you would be happy with a 94-win regular season, you'd take it every year. They have held their own without their ace.
Pitching is a tough profession. I get a sore arm playing dodgeball, so I can only imagine the strain hurling 2,000 plus innings of professional baseball puts on a human arm. Verlander ranks 17th among active pitchers in innings pitched. Thirteen of the 16 fellas in front of him have suffered through extended periods with injuries. Turns out he's human.
I had one of those 30-game ticket packages back in 2008. Hopes were high. Sadly, the Tigers limped to a losing record and Armando Galarraga was our "ace." Seriously, he was second in WAR (per Baseball Reference) for the club that year. You can look it up. Anyway, Verlander struggled to a league-leading 17 losses. However, while his strikeout rate dipped from 8.2 to 7.3, that was still much better than his 2006 rate of 6.0. The only real changes from were we saw an increased walk rate (career high of 3.9) and an 18 point jump on BABIP from the season before. As a fan you could chalk this up to a 25-year-old pitcher still figuring out his craft.
Now, if we look back at 2014 we saw a player who knew his craft and still struggled. You could blame it on his core injury if you wanted to, but he made 32 starts last year and the adjustments you'd expect from a veteran pitcher did not happen. Not down the stretch, not in the postseason.
All five spots in the Tigers' rotation for this year were spoken for way back in March. One could have filled out a rotation this way: 1. David Price 2. Anibal Sanchez 3. Verlander 4. Alfredo Simon 5. Shane Greene With Verlander out, the Tigers bumped up Simon and Greene and slotted left-hander Kyle Lobstein in at the fifth spot.
Here are Verlander's stats from 2014 compared to Lobsten's in his eight starts of 2015:
Verlander hung in there a bit longer. Much of that was probably by reputation, while Lobstein is obviously given a shorter leash by Brad Ausmus. Both WHIP numbers are a bit further north than you'd like to see. The major advantage for Verlander are those strikeouts. Even though that rate is low for him, Lobstein will just never be that guy. However, with an improved Tigers defense, strikeouts are not quite as important as they once were.
More to the point: Would the Tigers have a better record right now if Verlander had started over Lobstein? The club is 3-5 in games started by Lobstein, not a great sign, I know. However, in those three wins, the club scored almost 7 runs per game. The Tigers probably would have won those games if Mike Maroth had started. However, in the five losses, the Tigers averaged 1.8 runs per game. Seriously. Do me a quick favor: Look at that 1.8 runs per game number, then look back up at Verlander's numbers from last season. Did you do it? Good.
Of Verlander's starts last season, guess how many times he surrendered one run or fewer? Four times. That's easy math, that's once every eight games. Lobstein has done it twice in eight games so far this season. The fact of the matter is this: If Verlander were pitching instead of Lobstein the Tigers might be 29-19. That's with a close-to-vintage JV.
If they got the 2014 Verlander, it's entirely possible the team would be closer to 26-22. Either way, I'm excited for Verlander's rehab start for the Mud Hens on Sunday. Everyone will be watching that radar gun.
Any serious conversation about postseason baseball in Detroit has to include an effective Verlander AND Anibal Sanchez. Sanchez has been the unexpected weak-link so far this season. He's been below replacement level the first quarter of the season. His strength has long been keeping the ball in the park and if he can't find a way to do that, it may not matter which JV we end up seeing.
Are the Tigers better off with a healthy and effective Verlander? No question. They just aren't any worse off so far.