Handicapping Justin Verlander

The 2014 season was a cruel one for Justin Verlander. To the fantasy baseball players who owned him for most of it and drafted, bought, kept, or traded for the formerly elite right-hander, the 2014 season felt approximately as cruel.

The pitcher surely expected more after a relatively – extra emphasis on relatively – disappointing 2013 effort that saw his walk rate jump above 8% and his average heat velocity dip below 94 mph for the first time since 2008 on his way to a 3.46 ERA and 1.31 WHIP. He and fantasy owners didn’t get it, though. The 4.54 ERA (117 ERA-, his worst mark in the category since his debut season), 1.40 WHIP, and 17.8% strikeout rate tell the tale of a mostly abysmal season, in fact.

Now what? The last time Verlander had fantasy owners this puzzled was, incidentally, after his 2008 campaign. The next year turned out to be pretty good. That hurler was 26, however, and his four-seam fastball averaged 95.6 mph. This guy will be 32, and … who knows?

Handicapping Verlander, then, won’t be easy. There are two basic elements: (1) the expectation (projection), and (2) the public’s (your league’s) reaction, anticipated or otherwise.

Projections for Verlander, circa 2015, might be all over the place. Pretty much all of them will count on some regression, but how much is uncertain. As a result, at least initially, rankings of him may be all over the place. Steamer’s (4.05 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 7.15 K/9, 2.71 BB/9, etc.) is as fair as any other as a place to begin. How fair is it?

Verlander is and has been what you might call a high-profile player, so his feats (or, more recently, his lack thereof) have been scrutinized pretty often. Essential reads on the subject:

  • May 21, 2014: Justin Verlander Needs to Change to Counter Change – Not a Changeup. His fastball, his essential pitch, is worse. He must adjust. Jeff Sullivan took a look in the mirror for the pitcher.
  • July 24, 2014: Justin May Be Hurting, but Is He Injured? – Well, was he? Guess he was. Not too badly, it seems; he missed a start because of shoulder soreness, but he avoided the disabled list.
  • July 17, 2014: Is This the Real Justin Verlander? – “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. … 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.”

I’m thankful for those great analysts’ work. I’d struggle to come up with much else to say about the guy. All I really want to know is how much I’d have to pay for him. So, I’m just going to spew some nitty gritty. Verlander throws a diminished fastball and has lost some velocity; those things make his slider, curve, and changeup less effective. He’s older, not necessarily toast; command of all his offerings, or a new offering or some other wrinkle, has become vital. He shouldn’t look to his defense; the Detroit Tigers remained one of the worst teams in baseball in that area in 2014.

Verlander had dominated by using a repertoire that hasn’t evolved much, other than by the depth and command of his individual pitches. (Mr. Sullivan wrote a cool blog a couple of years ago on how JV had improved his slider, for example.)

Justin Verlander pitch type

It really looks as if Verlander has fought the tide more than roll with it. He won the AL Cy Young and MVP awards in the same year not too long ago. His disintegration is probably harder for him to reconcile than it is for us to watch it. He also has no shortage of reasons to believe that life isn’t, otherwise, good. (Although those images could call into question his diet, too.)

But on the diamond anymore, it’s not so much. Verlander has work to do. He could recover whiffs. There are obviously different paths to them. Felix Hernandez, another fastball-slider-curve-changeup guy, has stayed ahead of the curve. Verlander, albeit less of a ground-ball guy and more of a pop-up pitcher, has fallen behind it. There’s also the increased threat of injury, given his workload, especially now that he’s dealt with a couple of them, even if they were seemingly insignificant.

As for Steamer’s projection, based on what we’ve seen? I think that the HR/9 is too hard on Verlander, but the BABIP is too forgiving. My ERA projection might be similar, but the WHIP would be greater, either way. The K% is harder to handicap than the BB%. A projection of anything better is based on faith and subjective intervention; neither of those things’ foundation is reason, but neither is unreasonable in the right circumstances. That projection is our bit of regression.

That projection shouldn’t cost much, by itself. It would have landed Verlander in the company of Jake Odorizzi and Brandon McCarthy in 2014, according to Zach Sanders’ end-of-season rankings for starting pitchers. That’s $1 and reserve territory. Or, a handful of dollars more than where Verlander actually ended up in 2014.

Add the name, and the price of that projection has gone up, perhaps significantly. How much is someone willing to pay for the hope of better? Winning bids for Verlander’s services could be all over the place, just like his projections, and the two wouldn’t need to be correlated. At some point, not far from the projection, the price point will extend beyond what’s reasonable to risk. In a 15-team mixed league, is that point $10, $7, $4? Verlander might be good. There have been too many good pitchers and surprise pitching commodities in recent years to chase such a buy based on faith alone, though.

Most of what we know isn’t very good. We seem to have a general idea of what Verlander needs to do to perform notably better than he did in 2014, however. I think of pitching, more so than hitting, as similar to martial arts in this way: “Through competition, we can discover ourselves.” This pitcher should have discovered, by now, that he must adapt.

Still, much of what we don’t and can’t know could still place his range of outcomes all over the place. We don’t know whether Verlander is doing or will go through such introspection and metamorphosis, at least not yet. We may learn that he is, has, or will, eventually. Then there’s the question of whether it’s just noise. Then there’s the question of how long it’d take for him to grasp these changes and, thus, for his results to benefit. Still, these things could happen. At some point, we would satisfy the temptation to tweak the projection.

At this point of the offseason, there appears to be little reason not to consider Verlander’s price point significantly lower than last season’s. In that 15-team mixed league, right now, I can’t imagine many scenarios in which I’d pay $10 for him. At, say, $7, I can picture a few. At $4, I’m definitely in, but so is most everyone else.

There’s quite a bit of distance between where Verlander is and where his future fantasy owners would like him to be. It’s possible that he’ll never be good again, of course, but it’d be unconscious to call him “done”; he’s made adjustments before, and other pitchers have learned to survive and even thrive by evolving. I’d like to see some news that bolsters confidence in my bid, if I want him, but such a development would make other bidders feel more assured, too.

There’s our starting point: a general, vague approximation. As the offseason moves forward, we’ll surely adjust.

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Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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GreenMountainBoy
Guest
GreenMountainBoy

Meet Justin Verlander, your new closer. Nathan was pretty bad last year and the lack of a closer arguably cost the Tigers a WS appearance in 2013.

Farfetched? Maybe not. His velocity should come back up. Comps? Look no further than Dennis Eckersley, who also switched from SP to CL in his age 32 season.

DoctorJ
Member
DoctorJ

I’d love to be in the room when Ausmus/DD told him he’s moving to the bullpen. Someone is getting their ass kicked in that scenario.

Darrell Berger
Guest
Darrell Berger

Part of the problem is that Ausmus was a rookie with no power and no, it seems, creativity. I would have said, “Justin, I want you to be on the mound when the Tigers win the World Series.” To which he probably would say, “Great! Me, too!.”

Then you have to say, “The only way that happens is if you become our closer for the post-season.” I think you might have been able to sell it. You might be able to sell it easier in 2015, given what is likely to be his continual gradual decline as a starter and the continued sucking of the Tigers bullpen.

sally2dicks
Guest
sally2dicks

I like where your head is at GMB. I wonder if the Tigers have had internal thoughts about him transitioning to the closer role but are terrified of the public outcry for having that much money sunk into a closer. Seriously though, that could be a very good thing for him if you can get past the price tag. The money is already spent so you might as well find the best way to minimize his depreciation value. Right now he’s in double decline. They can slow that drip by getting him on board with this.

Hirsch
Guest
Hirsch

He finished 2014 with a sub-4.00 FIP and tied for the 17th highest pitching WAR in the majors. Maybe wait until he doesn’t do that before you believe that he is in “double decline”