When Justin Verlander takes the mound against the Cleveland Indians on Saturday, it will signify more than the start of his season. He'll return from a lost season in 2014, and the first stint on the disabled list of his career with his legacy at a crossroads. The manner of his return, measured over the rest of the 2015 season, will go a long way to outlining how he'll be remembered when this era of Tigers baseball has long since passed away.
In the weeks to come, Verlander will make both his 300th start for the Tigers, and pitch his 2,000th inning. He's just 32 years old, yet there are only a dozen or so active starters down the road ahead of him. Milestones like that bring to mind all that we've seen from the finest Tigers starter since Mickey Lolich over the past 10 years. The history of the franchise and Verlander's place in it will be discussed, and nostalgia waxed. But our impressions of the past are often shaped by our hopes and fears for the future.
By his own standards, 2014 was a disaster, the worst season since his 2008 campaign by far. For some observers, the most meaningful part of Verlander's career ended last year. Sure he still gave the Tigers more innings than most, but they were average innings. For others, there is hope that last season's struggles will one day appear as a challenge that Verlander rose to, defying the skeptics to produce several more years of excellence. Someday we'll regard it as either an aberration caused by injury, or the end of Verlander as a dominant starting pitcher. But it's the man himself who has the power to define his legacy on his own terms in the months to come.
There are certainly reasons to hope that Verlander is capable of putting together a more effective performance than he did last year. And fastball velocity should not be one of the main concerns. Even last year he was throwing as hard as elite starters like Corey Kluber and Sonny Gray. He also managed contact pretty well, though the woeful Tigers' defense let him down at times. His walk rate was hurt by an awful first half, but he did turn that around in a big way from July-October and in part it may have been a function of a lack of confidence in his ability to miss bats. And that is the central issue. The single most important key to Verlander finding his way back, is to generate more swinging strikes.
First, that has to start by establishing good movement and command with his fastball again. For long stretches last season it lacked life and he was also less accurate with it, causing him to fall behind hitters. He gave up surprising power numbers to right-handed hitters as a result. At times, he appeared to be throwing with more raw arm strength, evidence of the reduced torque he was generating with his legs and core muscles. The shoulder soreness he experienced in Pittsburgh in August was quite possibly a result of that extra effort. Effort and tension like that saps a pitcher's ability to generate high spin-rates and quality late movement. Without it, you won't miss many bats at the major league level.
Verlander made his bones on his huge leg drive and lower-body strength, generating easy velocity while allowing him to snap through his delivery and generate very high spin rates on all his pitches. Regardless of velocity, if his lower half has regained its former strength, we should see an easier motion and more consistent movement on the fastball and improved control as well. That was certainly the case in his rehab start in Toledo on June 6. If it continues, he should see the whiff rate on his fastball improve from last season and feel more comfortable throwing it for strikes without nibbling quite so much around the edges of the zone.
However, without the ability to reach back for triple-digits, and probably topping out around 95-96 mph this year, we'll never see fastball values as high as Verlander posted in 2011-2012 again. And it has to be said that his fastball made his curveball/change-up combination all the more devastating. Yet it's the value of those two pitches that absolutely collapsed last year, dramatically reducing his strikeout rate. More than anything else, Justin is going to have to sharpen those two pitches to bring his strikeout rate back up above eight per nine innings.
The movement on them needs to improve a little bit, but more importantly, he needs to be able to locate both consistently. Verlander repeatedly struggled to land those his off-speed pitches for strikes when he was ahead of hitters last year, extending at-bats, and allowing hitters more opportunities to sit on his fastball late in counts. This is the biggest factor in determining whether Verlander posts similar numbers to last year, or whether he rebounds to his 2013 performance levels or better.
The factor that can't be accounted for is injury. Verlander has been far and away one of most durable starters in recent baseball history. The fact that he's never had an injury to his shoulder or elbow is freakish in this era of weekly UCL and shoulder injuries. If his off-season workout program has his body as strong and healthy as reports suggest, and the triceps strain that finally put him out of action for the first time in his career is fully healed, I think we can expect good things from him the rest of the season. Most particularly, better movement and more consistent command of his arsenal.
If he can supply modest improvement in that department, the Tigers' have themselves a very good, though not elite, starting pitcher again. If not, it's probably time to accept that the Tigers no longer have any more than an average starter in their former ace. Right now, it's difficult to predict what we'll see, but my expectations are that a competitor as fierce as Verlander is going to bounce back and surprise a lot of people. Nothing to do now but give him the ball and see what he's got.