What’s wrong with Justin Verlander?

Justin Verlander is 6-7 with a 4.98 ERA in his first 15 starts of the 2014 season.

Justin Verlander is 6-7 with a 4.98 ERA in his first 15 starts of the 2014 season.

On Monday night at Comerica Park something odd happened. Justin Verlander walked off the mound — the one where he once threw a no-hitter — and was met with a chorus of boos.

Tigers’ fans are not happy with their ace. Or should we call him our former ace?

During his career, Verlander has treated the Kansas City Royals like his little brothers, beating them 17 times while losing only five. His ERA against the perennial doormats of the AL Central going into Monday’s game was 2.88. After the “little brother” smacked him around for seven runs Monday night, that figure ballooned to 3.10. This rare defeat, which dropped his mark against KC to 17-6, was more than an aberration, it was the continuation of a frightening trend for JV in 2014.

In his last seven starts, Verlander has been battered by enemy lineups:

May 14 at Baltimore (6 IP, 5 ER, 6 H, 3 BB, 1 HR, 4 K)
May 20 at Cleveland (6 IP, 5 ER, 11 H, 3 BB, 0 HR, 2 K)
May 25 vs Texas (5.1 IP, 6 ER, 11 H, 3 BB, 1 HR, 1 K)
May 30 at Seattle (7.2 IP, 3 ER, 5 H, 1 BB, 1 HR, 7 K)
June 5 vs Toronto (7 IP, 5 ER, 8 H, 4 BB, 2 HR, 4 K)
June 11 at Chicago (5.2 IP, 7 ER, 8 H, 4 BB, 1 HR, 6 K)
June 16 vs Kansas City (6 IP, 7 ER, 12 H, 2 BB, 1 HR, 2 K)

His grisly totals for this stretch: 43.2 innings, 38 earned runs allowed, 61 hits allowed, 20 walks, seven homers allowed, and 26 strikeouts. His ERA for that stretch is 7.83 and it goes without saying that he’s not kept the team in a position to win, as the Tigers have gone 2-5 in those games. It’s actually surprising that Detroit was able to win two of those games at all.

Every pitcher, even a Justin Verlander, will have a bad outing here and there. In their great seasons, the best pitchers will have very few of them, that’s why they are called “great seasons.” But so many bad outings in a seven-game stretch is troubling. Seven starts is about a fifth of a season for a starting pitcher. What’s up with JV?

A closer look at his outings shows a few very disturbing things:

1. Verlander is allowing more baserunners than at any point in his career.

2. As a result, he’s throwing more pitches than he typically does at this point of the season.

3. And most alarming, his strikeout rate is dipping to very low levels.

Let’s take each point one at a time: (1) throughout his career, Verlander has been stingy at allowing hits and baserunners. In his MVP/Cy Young season of 2011, the right-hander allowed a league-low 6.2 hits per 9 innings. In fact, from 2007-12, he averaged 7.6 hits allowed per 9 innings pitched, an excellent mark that was the lowest in baseball during that span. Last season his hit rate increased to 8.7, and much of that increase occurred in June, July, and August when he was not the typical Verlander we’ve come to expect. He allowed more than a hit per inning for those three months before making some adjustments that turned him around in September and catapulted him to a great postseason. But here in 2014, he’s allowing more than 10 hits per 9 innings pitched, and unfortunately he’s also walking more batters too, about 1 1/2 more per game than he did two years ago. This combines to give him a WHIP (walks and hits allowed per game) of 1.56, a figure that is extremely elevated when compared to his 1.08 rate for 2009-12. More baserunners means more trouble, and more trouble means more run-scoring opportunities for the opposing team.

Which leads to (2) more pitches thrown. Verlander is averaging 112 pitches per start in 2014. At the same point last year he was throwing 106 per start. In his start last week against the White Sox, Verlander was going along well, having allowed one run through five innings. Then, in the sixth frame he imploded and manager Brad Ausmus left him on the hill twisting desperately with nothing left. Ausmus failed to have a right-handed reliever ready in his bullpen and chose to keep JV in the game to face three more batters than was necessary. Against those three batters, Verlander allowed two walks and a line drive single that allowed the third and fourth run of the inning. He was finally replaced but two more of his runs came in against the relief pitcher, giving him a line of 5.2 IP with 7 earned runs and 12 baserunners. Verlander has made 127 starts since 2011, including the postseason, which is 10 more than any other pitcher in the game. This season so far, he’s been asked to shoulder more of the load than normal, as the Tigers have used rainouts and days off to skip other pitchers starts and give JV more touches. He’s on pace to start a career-high 36 games and pitch almost 240 innings. Are all of those pitches, all of those high-pressure pitches taking a toll?

Lastly, (3) Justin Verlander is not striking out as many batters as he used to. Strikeout rate and K-to-walk ratio have been shown to be one of the most important indicators of success at the major league level. The best pitchers make batters swing and miss or stand there “like the house by the side of the road” and watch strike three buzz by. Strikeouts are a result of command, location, and velocity. And velocity, counter to some popular opinion, is least important. Verlander was regularly throwing his fastball at 98-100 MPH prior to 2010, but he wasn’t pitching, he was throwing too much. In 2010 he started pacing himself and reserving that powerful heat for when he needed it, as a result his K rate (strikeouts per 9 innings) went from a career-high of 10.1 to 8.8, which was where it stayed for the last four seasons, between 8.8-9.0 as he became a perennial All-Star. A pitcher doesn’t need to strike out every batter to be great, but a high rate coupled with command is the sign of a great pitcher. In 2014, Verlander’s K rate is only 6.4, about 2.5 less than his established norm of the recent past. His K rate is the lowest it’s been since his rookie season. Why?

Verlander says his arm feels fine, that the offseason surgery on his core is not troubling him. I have no reason not to believe him, but his K rate and the ration of his K’s to his walks, is dipping fast. His K to BB ratio for 2009-13 was 3.66, that means for every walk he struck out 3.66 batters. In 2014 so far that figure has nosedived to 1.68, less than half his established rate. Has he lost velocity and command? Can he turn it around?

Verlander turned 31 in February, he’s now entering the second phase of his career. Are his struggles this season a sign that he has to make adjustments, that he is just going through a tough spell, or is it a sign that he may not have a long career?

I looked at some recent pitchers who were of similar type to Verlander based on K to BB ratio. Going back to 1980, I checked all pitchers who had a K to BB ratio between 2.5 and 5.0 and had started at least 200 games while also posting a K rate of at least 6.0 (strikeouts have gone up and a rate of 6.0 in the 1980s and early 1990s was very good). The result was 35 pitchers, including Verlander and many other active pitchers (Felix Hernandez, James Shields, Cole Hamels, Jered Weaver, and Ricky Nolasco among them). I wanted to see if there was a trend among these pitchers for declining after their 8th, 9th, 10th seasons. I didn’t find any such trend, in fact, almost all of the pitchers on the list were very good pitchers who kept going well into their 30s even as their K rates typically fell. The pitchers included such greats as Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, John Smoltz, and Roy Halladay. But there were also names like Roy Oswalt, Javier Vazquez, Shane Reynolds. and Ben Sheets, pitchers who petered out in their early or mid-30s, in some cases falling of a cliff. But those pitchers were the exception, not the rule. A current pitcher on the list bears mentioning: CC Sabathia is two years older than Verlander, but got his career started five years sooner than JV. Sabathia is showing signs of wearing down, but his K rate is staying up around his established levels even in 2014 when he has an ERA over 5.00.

Are Verlander’s struggles and sudden dive in his K rate an indication that he’s going to decline like Javier Vazquez and Roy Oswalt did in their early to mid-30s? Or will he get his K rate back up and keep chugging long like CC Sabathia? Will he keep piling up wins like Mussina and Smoltz did well into their late 30s?

I think Verlander is in a funk and he’ll eventually get himself back on track. His body of work is large enough now to show us that he’s most likely going to continue pitching very well into his mid-30s. He might not strike out as many as he once did, and his ERA may be a little higher, but if he can command his pitches, the swings and misses will come back and that will lead to success.

One thing for certain: the Tigers need Justin Verlander to pitch better than he has if they want to hold down the Royals and win another division title and make a run at the World Series again.


5 replies on “What’s wrong with Justin Verlander?

  • otto

    JV lost his pitching mojo soon he started dating that blonde. Can’t say I blame him. I wouldn’t care about much else either if she were my girlfriend. Add that to a huge guaranteed contract and it’s easy to see why this stuff happens sometimes in pro sports. No one should be surprised.

  • Dan Holmes


    Thanks for your comment.

    Verlander was dating Upton as early as 2010, so how do you explain his great season in 2011 and again a very good season in 2012?


  • otto

    My inside sources tell me their relationship wasn’t ‘consummated’ until spring 2014. It’s all downhill from there. 😉

  • Ralph D. Van Loton

    The title of this article is, “What’s wrong with Justin Verlander?” This question was not answered at all. I was prepared to read a dissection, diagnosis, and finally a prognosis regarding his pitching woes; the stats are wonderful, but hollow. This would be akin to my Doctor telling me, “You have a broken leg and your blood pressure is statistically low.”

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