2014 Player Previews: SP Justin Verlander

Justin Verlander's credentials need no introduction, but 2013 wasn't quite the year the Tigers were expecting out of their ace, as the right-hander struggled throughout much of the season to be his same, dominant self as he lacked bite on his curve and a drop in velocity on his fastball. Was that a sign of things to come, especially after off-season surgery, or will JV return to the form of old?

Justin Verlander 2013 In Review

2013 Stats
Detroit 218.1 34 13-12 5.2 3.67 3.28 3.46 .316 8.9 3.1 38% 7.8%

Compared to mortals, it was a very good season for Justin Verlander. He was good for more than 5 wins as a starting pitcher, ate up over 218 innings with an ERA in the mid-3's, and struck out nearly a batter per inning. But, despite the strong year, it wasn't the Verlander-esque year that fans had become accustomed to seeing, especially not after handing over a monster contract extension in spring training.

As a matter of value, his 5.2 WAR was his worst line since his down 2008 season, and down nearly two full wins from his average from 2009-2012. So again, he was good, but not quite as good as he had been, and quite frankly given how close things ended up in the division race, those two wins could have been very beneficial.

Verlander's season wasn't one that you would think would be made up of unluckiness, either. His ERA was right in line with his FIP and xFIP, and while his BAbip was high at .316, Verlander allows fewer balls in play per batter than most pitchers do. His home run allowed rate didn't indicate a great deal of bad fortune, either.

His high walk rate was of particular concern, walking an additional batter for every nine innings. That resulted in about an extra 25 baserunners against Verlander, which along with the higher rate of hits allowed on balls in play, is a lot extra runners that had to be accounted for.

Much of this can go back to his fastball, which dropped to an average velocity of 94.0 in 2013, down more than 1.5 MPH from his peak back in 2009 and 2010. That's not necessarily a huge problem for many pitchers, as that's still plenty of velocity, but the effectiveness or lack thereof for the pitch was especially noteworthy. The fastball had a pitch value (via Pitch F/X) of almost 14 in 2012 and over 17 in 2011. It came in at zero last year – basically indicating that the pitch was simply average in its effectiveness. For a guy that relies on the pitch as his bread and butter, that becomes a larger problem.

Of course, these struggles in 2013 get examined closer than his masterful playoff performance, where Verlander posted a miniscule 0.39 ERA over three starts, striking out 12 batters per nine innings, and turning in a vintage JV performance in game 5 of the ALDS, the series clinching game. It was the sort of pitching Tigers fans had come to expect, and something he hopes to continue moving forward, despite off-season core muscle surgery, which has some worried about his readiness for 2014, despite being on track to start the season.

2014 Player Projections

2014 Advanced Projections
Service G IP WAR ERA FIP BAbip K/9 BB/9
ZiPS 32 216.2 6.1 3.07 3.36 .284 9.3 2.5
Steamer 30 192.0 4.0 3.52 3.53 .281 8.4 2.6
Oliver 34 232.0 5.7 3.14 3.23 .291 8.7 2.5

We see varying degrees of performance from the projection services, with a couple optimistic that he'll come close to becoming that six or more WAR pitcher once again. The Steamer projection doesn't have the same optimism though, forecasting a continued downward trend, even anticipating a few missed starts en route to a year in which he has Verlander worth just four wins. A strong #3 starter in a good year can be worth four wins, so the Tigers aren't paying Verlander what they're paying him to give that level of contribution.

As far as ERA and FIP, the two break the way you'd expect – Oliver and ZiPS see Verlander sitting right around three again, which for him for a full season once again makes him a workhorse, six win pitcher. Steamer on the other hand expects Verlander's ERA to stay up, in the mid 3's.

All the services are consistent on expected walks – they forecast Verlander to reign in the control issues, and bring his walk rate down about half a walk per nine. Steamer again forecasts more trouble in the strikeout side though, with fewer K's per nine (8.4) than JV has been at since 2008 again.

The impressive playoff showing indicates that Verlander still has it in him to be the ace that Tigers fans have come to know and appreciate over the last several years. But there are some things that remain a troubling sign, including an average velocity that continues to trend down – not unusual for someone over 30, but also problematic for a pitcher that depends on the extra gas when he's up against the wall.

Verlander will be good again in 2014, of this there's very little question. It just remains to be seen whether or not he'll be Cy Young-good again.

2014 Projections come from three different sources; ZiPS, Steamer, and Oliver, all publicly available via FanGraphs.com and presented for information purposes only. ZiPS projections come from Dan Szymborski, Steamer from Steamer Projections, a trio of independent academic researchers, and Oliver Projections from Brian Cartwright.

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