2015 Player Previews: RHP Justin Verlander

Unless you were living in a world without an internet connection or a radio signal, you’re probably aware that it wasn’t a great season for Justin Verlander, and that’s probably an understatement. Can he recover from the disastrous 2014 campaign, or was that the continuation of the downward trend that started in 2013, that will spell the end of Verlander’s reign as the ace of the Tigers’ staff?

2014 In Review – Justin Verlander

2014 Stats
Detroit 206.0 32 15-12 3.3 4.19 3.74 4.54 .317 7.0 2.8 40% 6.8%

A year ago, we were caveating that while 2013 wasn’t a great year for Justin Verlander, it was still a very good season for a pitcher. It just wasn’t quite at the level of which we had become accustomed to expecting out of JV, who was arguably the most dominating pitcher in baseball the years leading up to 2013. So, in 2013, Verlander was still good, he just wasn’t JV Good.

Well, 2014 wasn’t good, by virtually any standard. He did still log more than 200 innings, amassed over 150 strikeouts and won 15 games. But his strikeout rate fell dramatically and his ERA ballooned up to 4.54, a level we hadn’t seen from Verlander since 2008.

Verlander’s advanced metrics were slightly better, his FIP was 3/4 of a point lower, and his xFIP was more than 3/10 of a point lower. He also lowered his walk rate from 2013, but it was still higher than his career average. His average on balls in play was 25 points higher than his career norm as well, but it was virtually identical to 2013, perhaps indicating that he’s just become a little more hittable.

All of this of course was overshadowed by the off-season core muscle repair surgery that he had. While he came into spring training on time, he spent the off-season rehabbing rather than building up strength for a grueling season and fine tuning his craft. He’s of course not the only player to have ever had off-season surgery, so it’s not an acceptable reason for why he struggled so much, but it could help explain it.

2015 Player Projections

2014 Advanced Projections
Service G IP WAR ERA FIP BAbip K/9 BB/9
ZiPS 31 202.1 3.8 3.78 3.76 .298 8.1 2.7
Steamer 32 204.0 2.4 4.02 4.10 .285 7.2 2.7

As you’ve probably noticed if you’ve been following the player preview series, the player projection models have gotten pretty strong, so they’re usually pretty close in their forecasts, with possible minor differences between the two. Somewhat surprisingly, there is a pretty big disparity between the two when it comes to arguably the single most important predictive stat: wins above replacement.

ZiPS sees Verlander strengthening off his 2014 performance, becoming nearly a four win pitcher once again, with an ERA/FIP in the range of his 2014 FIP, including bringing his strikeout numbers back up. Basically, ZiPS sees Verlander’s 2014 as an aberration outside the trend that would be expected for a pitcher that is on the other side of 30, and due for some decline, but not to the extent to what we see last season.

Steamer on the other hand is much more negative, forecasting a continued downward decline in his performance, being a pitcher worth barely more than two wins. His strikeout numbers stay down around seven per nine, and his ERA stays north of four. Steamer basically sees the 2014 season as the catching up of a heavy workload, and the continuation of a rapid decline that started in 2013.

Both systems do agree that he’s likely to surpass 200 innings once again, and will likely see his average on balls in play tick back down, given the average he’s seen the last couple of years, is an encouraging sign.

The TigsTown Take

As TigsTown already mentioned in its Five Fearless Predictions for 2015, we’re not ready to give up on Verlander yet. He was simply too dominant for too long, and there were too many things that explain away 2014 to believe it’s part of the trend, and not the outlier.

With a full off-season to prepare, a refocused mindset that is hopefully ready to adjust to no longer having an upper-90’s fastball that can blow hitters away, Verlander should be in line for a good season. As noted almost everywhere, the #MustSeeJV hashtag is ready for retirement, but that doesn’t mean Verlander can’t still be a very good starting pitcher that can deliver 30+ starts of mid-3 ERA, justifying himself as a top of the rotation starter once again.

2015 Projections come from two different sources; ZiPS, and Steamer, both publicly available via FanGraphs.com and presented for information purposes only. ZiPS projections come from Dan Szymborski, and Steamer from Steamer Projections, a trio of independent academic researchers.

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