Justin Verlander: Ace, or Merely Above Average?

Suffice it to say, the 2008 Detroit Tigers fell well short of expectations. While the pre-season predictions calling for 1,000 runs scored were ridiculous, Detroit’s 78-84 Pythagorean Record was legitimately disappointing. The Tigers’ offense was reasonably productive (ranking 10th in the majors in Equivalent Average), but the starting pitchers stumbled to a collective 5.03 ERA, ranking just 11th in the American League.

While the continued disappointment and injury issues concerning star-crossed righty Jeremy Bonderman got some attention, the majority will point to Justin Verlander‘s campaign as the most troubling development in the Motor City during the 2008 season. Verlander’s ERA ballooned from 3.66 in ’07 to 4.84 in 2008, a hefty increase. So, was Verlander considerably worse this past season? And what can we expect from him in 2009?

To help answer these questions, let’s take a look Verlander’s peripherals and Fielding Independent ERA’s (FIP ERA) over his three full seasons in the major leagues:

2006

186 IP, 6 K/9, 2.90 BB/9, .293 BABIP, 78.3 LOB%, 4.35 FIP ERA

2007

201.2 IP, 8.17 K/9, 2.99 BB/9, .294 BABIP, 74.9 LOB%, 3.99 FIP ERA

2008

201 IP, 7.3 K/9, 3.90 BB/9, .305 BABIP, 65.4 LOB%, 4.18 FIP ERA

Verlander lost some of the K’s that he picked up in 2007 (basically splitting the difference between his K rate in ’06 and ’07) and walked nearly a batter more per nine innings, so his peripherals did slip. However, his 65.4 Left On Base % was well below the major league average (around 70-72%), which explains why his ERA was higher than it should have been given his K’s, walks and home run rate. The main thing to notice here is that his FIP ERA’s over these three years are pretty similar. Verlander’s FIP ERA in 2008 was 4.18. His career FIP ERA? 4.18. That’s certainly useful. But ace-worthy?

It’s also worth mentioning that Verlander’s fastball velocity has progressively dipped each season. It’s not as though he’s scrounging to hit 90 on the radar gun or anything, but he did lose over 1 MPH from 2007 to 2008:

Verlander’s Fastball Velocity, 2006-2008

2006: 95.1 MPH
2007: 94.8 MPH
2008: 93.6 MPH

It’s difficult to say just what sort of effect this will have on Verlander going forward, or if this trend will continue, but it’s a bit troubling for a power pitcher to lose a mile and a half off of his heat before his 26th birthday. While Verlander’s fastball has been getting slower, his changeup and curveball have actually been coming in harder:

Verlander’s Curveball and Changeup Velocity, 2006-2008

2006: Curveball (78.4 MPH) Changeup (81.8 MPH)
2007: Curveball (80.2 MPH) Changeup (82.7 MPH)
2008: Curveball (81 MPH) Changeup (83.7 MPH)

With the dip in fastball velocity and the increase of speed on both his curve and change, Verlander has less speed variance between his pitches. Here’s the difference in speed between his fastball and his secondary pitches over the past three seasons:

2006: Curveball (-16.7 MPH) Changeup (-13.3 MPH)
2007: Curveball (-14.6 MPH) Changeup (-12.1 MPH)
2008: Curveball (-12.6 MPH) Changeup (-9.9 MPH)

It’s an old baseball axiom that pitching is mostly about location and changing speeds. Verlander’s ability to change speeds has eroded by a significant margin since 2006, as his pitches are now coming in within a more limited range of speed. One would imagine that it’s harder to hit a pitcher whose fastball differs 17 MPH from his curve and 13 MPH from his change than it is to hit a guy with a 13 MPH difference with his hook and a 10 MPH difference with the changeup.

Justin Verlander is a good starting pitcher who can look absolutely unhittable at times. However, his peripheral stats and the aforementioned pitching trends suggest that he’s more of a solid starter than an unquestioned star. Verlander’s ERA should revert back to the low-4’s in 2009, but if you’re expecting ace-level production, you may be disappointed.



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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


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kevin ketch
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kevin ketch

One thing I’ve noticed that’s not been touched on, is the motivation and above average pitcher gets from coming off a losing season. This year you have 3: Verlander, Hernandez, and Peavy. I’ll have all 3 on my challenge team.
For crying out loud, look what Willis did a few years back off a loser!!!!!

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