Would fewer pitches and innings fix Verlander?

One bad inning in many of his starts has been the problem for Justin Verlander in 2014.

One bad inning in many of his starts has been the problem for Justin Verlander in 2014.

Miguel Cabrera recently admitted his off-season “core” surgery has had lingering effects that have left him at less than 100 percent. Justin Verlander had a similar type of surgery last winter but has insisted all year long he’s completely recovered.

But is he?

Apparently not.

We know JV has thrown more pitches — way more — than any other pitcher in MLB the last five years. We know the velocity on his fastball has slipped a little. And we have seen the results — fewer strikeouts and a much higher ERA.

Through the All-Star break, JV had an ERA nudging 5.00 and an ERA+ of 85 (league average is 100). He’d given up 78 runs, 70 of them earned. The next most runs allowed on the staff was Max Scherzer’s 47. Verlander alone, in 129 innings pitched (15.8 percent of the team’s total), had given up more than 20 percent of the team’s runs.

A further look at each of Verlander’s 20 starts so far this year documents what most fans have seen for themselves: JV has been prone to disastrous big innings.

Of his 129 innings, he’s given up six runs in one inning, five runs in three different innings, four runs in an inning four times, and three runs five times.

In those thirteen big innings, he’s given up a total of 52 runs.

In his remaining 116 innings, he’s given up a total of 26 runs — 2.02 per nine innings (including earned and unearned). In other words, in 90 percent of his innings on the mound this season, he’s been pitching like the ace he used to be. That’s why it’s so puzzling to observers — and maybe even to JV himself — when, 10 percent of the time, he is essentially a batting practice pitcher. 52 runs in 13 innings — a total runs allowed average of 36.00. (Let’s just forget about which are earned and unearned, though a good number of those eight unearned runs have occurred in big innings.)

Since mid-May, those breakdown innings have piled up. Through Mother’s Day, JV was cruising along, apparently healthy, and having a good season (4-2 with a 2.67 ERA). He’d allowed three runs in an inning twice and four runs once over 54 innings.

Off the top of my head, I’d say that is a pretty typical distribution.

In the 75 innings since, he’s had ten bad innings — an average of nearly one disaster each outing.

When and why does Verlander break down?

Usually the bad innings occur later in his starts. Like any pitcher, Verlander sometimes struggles in the first inning. He allowed five runs in the first inning on July 8 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, then shut them down the next five innings to get the win as the Tigers roared back. Besides that outing, one of his four-run innings came in the second inning and two other three-run innings occurred in the fourth frame. The other nine bad innings have all occurred in the fifth, sixth, or seventh innings.

You can discuss mechanics all day and all night, and apparently Verlander, who’s always trying to get things right, has done so. And probably there are adjustments that he’s made that have helped. But the evidence points to a much simpler explanation of what’s wrong with Verlander: he’s breaking down or falling apart after he gets deeper into games, especially as the season is wearing on. His arm may feel fine, and he insists he is healthy, but that body, somewhere in its core, is getting tired—not in every outing, but in many of them.

His “run average” per inning is also revealing (remember, I’m just lumping in the unearned runs with the earned, so I can’t call these an ERA, but I have calculated them as nine-inning averages just like ERA):

1st –   5.40
2nd – 3.60
3rd – 0.00
4th – 5.40
5th – 8.80
6th – 8.05
7th – 9.00
8th – 9.00

You read it right. Verlander has not given up a run in the third inning all year. Now, it is typical for a pitcher to have first-inning problems sometimes, but JVs first-inning number is skewed by that one bad first inning against the Dodgers. It is also well established that batters do better against pitchers the second, third, and fourth times they face them in a game. But Verlander’s numbers are extreme; this is more than the typical fall-off as the game progresses.

Maybe Verlander’s reputation and track record of being a horse is hurting him. Maybe all those pitches thrown are starting to have an effect. Maybe he should be treated this season as someone coming off an injury — because he did come off surgery. Maybe he hasn’t completely regained his strength.

Maybe Brad Ausmus should, until proven otherwise, “handle him with care”, like a rookie or a pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery. Maybe, until he can prove he is really sound, Verlander should be limited to something like 90 pitches a game.

Certainly Ausmus should get a reliever ready in a hurry at the first sign of trouble in the fifth inning or later — because that’s when games have been getting away from JV. Of course, Verlander will fight to stay in the game and insist he’s OK — but that’s what the manager is for.