Is This The Real Justin Verlander?

The All Star Game took place on Tuesday, and for the first time since 2008, Justin Verlander was not there for the festivities. Looking at his recent performance, it seems like very, very long ago that Verlander was the consensus pick as the best pitcher in baseball, when in fact, it was 2012. What has happened, and is his descent from the Mount Rushmore of starting pitchers permanent? Great pitchers have had bad years before regaining their groove — Steve Carlton, for one, lost 20 games in 1973 and didn’t come close to resembling the monster who won 27 games for a terrible Philadelphia team the year before. All he did was go on to win three more Cy Young Awards over the next decade, while in the process reclaiming Best Pitcher in Baseball honors. Can Verlander make a similar resurgence?

Justin Verlander was the second player selected in the 2004 draft, just after – wait for it – Matt Bush. Verlander pitched his college ball at Old Dominion, not exactly your standard baseball hotbed. He was highly touted entering his junior year, combining high octane stuff with a prototypical pitcher’s frame. He wasn’t yet a finished product, as he hadn’t consistently dominated the fairly mediocre competition he had faced to that point.

It was at this point that in the summer of 2003, I had the opportunity to see Justin Verlander pitch for the first time, as he took the mound for Team USA against a New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL) summer wood bat team. The guy I saw that day was a finished product, and to this day, that outing was the best I have ever seen from an amateur prospect. He touched 100 MPH and pitched at 97-98, and his hammer curve and changeup both graded as plus present pitches. The command issues that had dotted his record weren’t in evidence on this day. I placed about as high a grade as one can upon him, and assumed there was no way this guy wouldn’t be drafted first overall the next summer. I had the opportunity to see him again the following spring, and while he wasn’t as perfect on a cold March night in Virginia, there was still zero chance he would be around when my club, the Brewers, picked at #5. I bid Mr. Verlander adieu.

The rest is history – the Padres passed on him, again showing how much a single draft selection can alter the course of an organization. The Tigers didn’t, and Verlander began his meteoric rise to the big leagues. He lasted all of 20 starts in the minors, all in 2005, posting a silly 11-2, 1.29, line with a 136/26 K/BB with only 81 hits allowed in 118 2/3 innings. His seven AA starts were an absolute joke – 0.28 ERA, just 11 hits allowed in 32 2/3 IP, with a 32/7 K/BB. He made two unsuccessful major league starts in mid-2005, and joined the Tiger rotation to stay as 2006 opened.

Since then, save for a fluky down season in 2008, when he led the AL in losses, Verlander has been, well – “Verlander”. He’s pitched no-hitters and won some serious hardware, including the 2006 Rookie of the Year award and the MVP/Cy Young daily double in 2011, and has enjoyed substantial postseason success along the way. His arrival coincided with the rebirth of the Detroit franchise – a team that had trotted out the worst major league club of this century, a 43-game winning 2003 squad that earned that 2nd overall pick that netted them Verlander, had signed big ticket free agents like Magglio Ordonez and Pudge Rodriguez, and was about to embark on a cycle of excellence that to this day has still not run its course.

By almost any standard, Verlander peaked in that 24-5, 2.40, 2011 MVP season. He pitched at nearly the same level in 2012, before looking human a little too often for Tiger fans’ taste in 2013. This season, he hasn’t resembled peak Verlander in any way, shape or form, and the only category in which he leads the league is hits allowed. What has driven this decline, and is it real, or even worse, perhaps permanent? Let’s take a closer look at his 2012, 2013 and 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data for some clues. First, the frequency information:

FREQ – 2012
Verlander % REL PCT
K 25.0% 133 94
BB 6.3% 86 33
POP 12.4% 142 91
FLY 26.3% 92 31
LD 24.6% 109 84
GB 36.7% 93 29

FREQ – 2013
Verlander % REL PCT
K 23.5% 123 87
BB 8.1% 109 67
POP 11.9% 157 91
FLY 28.6% 102 56
LD 22.6% 105 73
GB 36.9% 86 15

FREQ – 2014
Verlander % REL PCT
K 16.9% 83 15
BB 8.1% 104 76
POP 11.0% 143 94
FLY 29.9% 107 74
LD 20.7% 100 48
GB 38.4% 88 12

Obviously, the big difference between the 2012 and 2014 versions of Justin Verlander lies in his K rate, which has dropped precipitously from 25.0% in 2012, to 23.5% in 2013 all the way to 16.9% thus far in 2014. That’s a plunge from a 94 percentile rank in 2012 down to 15 this season. That is pretty astonishing – we’ll get back to it later. His BB rate has also trended up over the years, as the MLB average BB rate has trended down – his 8.1% BB rate this season is above average for an ERA-qualifying starter, good for a percentile rank of 76, up from 33 as recently as 2012.

Over the years, Verlander has coupled a well above average K rate with a significant popup tendency. While the K rate has slid since 2012, the popup tendency remains in place – his popup rates have floated in a narrow band between 11.0% and 12.4%, and the corresponding percentile ranks have similarly ranged from 91 to 94 since 2012. Verlander has been a fly ball pitcher throughout his career, never once posting a ground ball percentile rank over 50 in his career. Interestingly, he has posted higher than MLB average line drive rates for most of his career, though this has not been the case in this, his career-worst campaign, as he has posted a liner percentile rank of 48 to date.

Now let’s take a look at the production by BIP type allowed by Verlander in all three seasons, both before and after adjustment for context:

PROD – 2012
FLY 0.292 0.750 98 101
LD 0.611 0.752 89 91
GB 0.192 0.201 63 86
ALL BIP 0.299 0.458 83 91
ALL PA 0.219 0.268 0.336 70 75 2.64 2.80 3.01

PROD – 2013
FLY 0.281 0.667 87 93
LD 0.696 0.889 110 105
GB 0.264 0.277 121 109
ALL BIP 0.336 0.497 103 101
ALL PA 0.249 0.311 0.368 92 91 3.46 3.55 3.51

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.208 0.550 56 74
LD 0.687 1.012 119 99
GB 0.331 0.357 185 104
ALL BIP 0.337 0.516 108 92
ALL PA 0.274 0.333 0.419 113 99 4.88 4.29 3.77

The actual production allowed by Verlander on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. In the three right-most columns, his actual ERA, his calculated component ERA based on actual production allowed, and his “tru” ERA, which is adjusted for context, are all presented. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

Some broad talking points here….first, while there has been a dramatic shift in Verlander’s K rate since 2012, there has not been a material change in the quality of contact he has allowed. Focus on the “ADJ PRD” column in the above production tables, as explained in the immediately preceding paragraph. Verlander’s ADJ PRD on all balls-in-play in 2014 is 92, better than the MLB average, and virtually identical to his 2012 mark of 91. This is despite a large difference between the actual production allowed on all BIP in 2012 (.299 AVG-.458 SLG) and 2014 (.337 AVG-.516 SLG). In 2014, Verlander has allowed well above league average production on liners and, especially ground balls, allowing an unbelievable .337 AVG-.357 SLG line on the latter, good for a REL PRD figure of 189.

In actuality, Verlander has allowed very close to league average authority on those two batted ball types, as indicated by his ADJ PRD figures of 99 and 104, respectively. In 2013 and 2014, he has actually managed fly ball contact particularly well, with ADJ PRD figures of 93 and 74. Add back the 2014 K’s and BB’s, however, and his overall ADJ PRD jumps to 99. That’s basically league average, for a “tru” ERA of 3.77. In 2012, his superb K and BB rates lowered his 91 ADJ PRD on all BIP – his Adjusted Contact Score – down to 75, good for a “tru” ERA of 3.01. The difference between 3.01 and 3.77 is virtually entirely attributable to the deterioration of his K and BB rates.

That 3.77 “tru” ERA for 2014 is over a full run better than his traditionally calculated ERA. That difference is attributable both to bad luck and poor Tiger team defense. Ian Kinsler has been the lone bright spot in the field for the Tigers, and Verlander has borne the brunt of it more than any of their starting pitchers.

Let’s get back to Verlander’s K rate plunge briefly. In 2009, Verlander’s K rate peaked at 1.95 standard deviations above the average K rate of all AL ERA qualifiers. Below is table of the 23 MLB ERA qualifiers, including Verlander, with a K rate at least that much higher than average. Also listed is each pitcher’s number of ERA qualifying seasons, and his lowest K rate relative to league average. Any pertinent notes appear in the right-most column.

P.Martinez 3.74 11 1.12
R.Johnson 3.61 15 0.84
K.Wood 2.89 4 1.42
Darvish 2.82 2 2.06
Clemens 2.78 19 0.89
J.Santana 2.73 7 -0.43 Low in last qual yr; then hurt
Nomo 2.67 8 0.47
Scherzer 2.51 5 0.76
Schilling 2.48 12 0.04 Low in first qual yr
O.Perez 2.44 3 0.98
Lincecum 2.41 6 0.94 Decreased each yr
Greinke 2.40 6 -0.14 Low in first qual yr
Prior 2.40 2 2.34
Colon 2.37 9 -1.29 Low at age 40; prev low 0.35
Bedard 2.29 2 1.02
Morrow 2.16 1 2.16
Peavy 2.11 7 0.44
Lackey 2.10 9 -0.24 Low in 2010; no qual 2011-12
Burnett 2.07 10 -0.18 Low in first qual yr
Lester 2.02 6 -0.04 Low in 2013
Ankiel 2.01 1 2.01
Kazmir 1.99 2 1.90
Verlander 1.96 8 -0.13 Low in first qual yr; (0.63) in 14

Thus far in 2014, Verlander’s K rate is 0.64 standard deviations below the average of all AL ERA qualifiers. The table above shows how rare it is for an extreme strikeout pitcher to ever, at any point in their career, be it their rookie year or at age 40, to have a relative K rate as low as Verlander’s 2014 mark. There are all-time greats on this list, as well as some flashes-in-the-pan like Rick Ankiel and Mark Prior, and there’s even an Oliver Perez sighting.

The two pitchers on this list whose situations perhaps most closely parallel that of Verlander are Johan Santana and John Lackey. Both pitchers reached their relative K rate low point just prior to major injuries that, in Lackey’s case, cost him two qualifying seasons, and in Santana’s case, cost him his career. Though Verlander has been extremely durable throughout his career, and even in this difficult season he is tied for the AL lead in starts, it is not outside the realm of possibility that his current power outage is being keyed by some underlying weakness or injury.

His swing-and-miss rate, in addition to his K rate, is sharply down from a career-high 11.7% in 2012 to 8.6% this season, and with the exception of his slider, his whiff rate is way down across his entire array of pitches. His average fastball velocity has steadily trended down from a peak of 95.6 MPH in 2009 to 93.3 MPH thus far this season. Some of this is the natural aging process, but the possibility is very real that there is an underlying physical cause for these developments.

The resurgence of Lackey in 2013-14, and also Jonathan Lester this season offers some hope for ongoing productivity. If, in the worst-case scenario, Verlander has a serious injury in his near future, Lackey is living proof that there is life afterward. If the situation proves to be less dire, Verlander has solid enough contact-management skills to be an above average starting pitcher with a bit of an upward bounce in his K rate, like Lester has experienced this season. He retains a significant popup tendency and manages fly ball contact quite well, even in this, his worst season. The days of Justin Verlander, monster and physical freak, may in fact be over. The days of Justin Verlander, durable #2-3 starter with upside, may still have some legs.

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