If you’re just comparing Justin Verlander to the population of professional baseball players, even the 2014 version was a perfectly useful major league pitcher. He ran a league average FIP in hitters’ park and while he gave up a good number of runs, he was the victim of some abuse from the bullpen that came in to help and a manager who often left him in past the point of effectiveness. He wasn’t good, but he also didn’t pitch like someone who should be out of baseball.
That low FIP is based on an average walk rate and home run prevention, both of which have been features of the Verlander experience for some time now. His strikeout rate careened off a cliff, which was the key reason for his overall struggles. He allowed a decent number of hits on balls in play, but not enough to explain the high number of runs allowed alone. Verlander’s 2014 struggles were mostly about his inability to record strikeouts.
His stuff was less consistent, the command wasn’t as sharp, and it took him a long time to make adjustments during the season. It’s not clear if this was the product of normal aging or if it was carry over from the offseason surgery and delayed preseason preparations. We’ll leave that aside for a moment and simply acknowledge that there was something wrong with the way Verlander pitched this year and it largely affected him by limiting his ability to deliver the strikeout.
We can pick the past apart until there’s nothing left but it’s time to look forward. Can Verlander be a very good starting pitcher again in 2015?
We certainly won’t expect to see 2009-2012 Verlander. That guy was the best pitcher in the league and in his baseball playing prime. The years of a 7-8 WAR seasons are gone, but 4-5 WAR could still be in reach if he can fix whatever ailed him this past year.
Let’s first look at the Steamer Projection system (their projections will be updated during the offseason, so this tentative), which is not at all optimistic. Steamer projects 189 innings, a 4.11 ERA, 4.17 FIP, and 4.43 RA9. No matter how you slice it, that’s about a two WAR pitcher. A two WAR pitcher is a league average starter and you’re hoping for much more.
But where does the gloomy outlook begin? Steamer expects Verlander to have a very similar walk rate going forward, which is good, but they also project only a marginal increase in his strikeout rate to go along with a big jump in his home run rate. Those are both very bad.
But on the other hand, part of that forecast could be reason for optimism. Steamer thinks Verlander is going to run the highest home run rate of his career by a good margin despite the fact that even during his down years, it’s never been that high. If you regress their estimate back to his career norm of about 0.80 HR/9, then their FIP projection falls to about 3.65. That’s not going to earn you a Cy Young, but it settles him in at 5-6% better than league average.
You’re not going to celebrate that, but if you think it’s likely their HR projection is too high (and I think that it is), then it circles back to the strikeout rate. It’s always going to come back to the strikeout rate.
We know some of his runs allowed this year were the result of a bullpen that treated him especially poorly, so his true performance is likely a little better than the RA9 or ERA, but a little worse than the FIP. If we look forward, the strikeout rate needs to come back by a certain amount. A 3.20 FIP (or ERA) is what you want. Let’s imagine a stat line!
Let’s call it 190 innings (which would be his lowest since 2006) and assume 65 walks and hit batters and 17 HR. Those both line up with our expectations of his walk rate and his career average in HR rate. To get to 3.20, he needs to strike out 200 batters, for a K/9 of about 9.5. He’s only done that once in his career.
If we want to get to a 3.40 FIP, 180 strikeouts will do the trick. That’s 8.5 K/9, which is something he had done five straight years prior to 2014. Put another way, if Verlander can get back to where he was after 2013, he looks poised for a very useful 2015.
Do you know what the difference is between 2014 Verlander and an 8.5 K/9? It’s one strikeout per start. That’s the difference between avert your eyes Verlander and very respectable MLB starter (about 10% better than average).
And while that might seem a little generous in that one extra strikeout couldn’t have made that big of a difference, think about all of those times when Verlander melted down right before the end of his start. Not only would one more out have made a big difference, but it would have limited the opportunities for the bullpen to allow his runners to score. They allowed 64% to score and league average is about 30%.
One extra out, an average bullpen, and some better outfield defense would have made a big difference this year and it he’s able to miss a few more bats next year, it’s entirely plausible.
Which brings us to the most important question. Why did Verlander struggle so much in 2014? Was it a sign of decline or evidence of limited offseason workouts due to injury? Was he hurt?
We don’t know the answer and can’t know the answer. What we do know is that Verlander’s numbers were partly skewed by his teammates and largely dependent on a lower strikeout rate. But with slightly improved stuff or health or approach, one extra strikeout per game could make a world of difference.
Verlander might never look like he did during his peak again, but the difference between a very good pitcher and what we saw this year is relatively small. It won’t take much for him to be a solid #2 starter in 2015, and at this point, that’s definitely enough.
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44