Detroit Tigers: Will Justin Verlander Play Up To Massive Contract?

By Thom Tsang
Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no other way to say it — the Detroit Tigers‘ seven-year (technically), $180 million deal with Justin Verlander with the option that could make him baseball’s first $200 million pitcher is unequivocally, absolutely crazy, and it’ll almost certainly end up being a financial mistake.

At the same time, it might just be the most sensible thing that the team could have done.

After all, if there was anyone in baseball who deserves to be a $200 million pitcher right now, it has to be Verlander, right?

Not even Clayton Kershaw can make that claim — not until he’s put up the six-plus seasons or over 200 innings pitched, anyway. In fact, it’s not exactly inconceivable to imagine that had Verlander gone all the way to free agency at the end of 2014 that some team would have paid him more than what the Tigers did for a longer term.

So when you put it that way, the team may have even saved money from the monster that is called the free agency market.

Putting aside the fact that the richest, most mind-boggling deal given to a starting pitcher might actually end up being a money-saver, is there a chance that the Verlander will end up being worth the deal?

The short version is that it’s impossible to tell, even if the ability is certainly there … for now.

The long version? Well, despite never having landed on the disabled list, history is far from being on the Tigers or Verlander’s side. That said, Verlander’s arm is unlikely anyone else’s in the bigs — his velocity hasn’t dropped (the same way it has for Felix Hernandez), and he has the uncanny ability to pace himself and get stronger as the game goes along.

Still, if you’re going with a strict numbers game, it’s difficult to imagine that Verlander will be able to sustain it. Based on a model of a pitcher win being worth approximately worth $4.5 million (according to Fangraphs), here’s how the Tiger’s ace contract is going to break down for him to play up to it:

2013: $20 million — 4.4 fWAR
2014: $20 million — 4.4 fWAR
2015: $28 million — 6.2 fWAR
2016: $28 million — 6.2 fWAR
2017: $28 million — 6.2 fWAR
2018: $28 million — 6.2 fWAR
2019: $28 million — 6.2 fWAR
2020: $20 million — 4.4 fWAR

This is , of course, not counting in market inflation/fluctuation, but the cost per win has held steady over the last two years, so that’s what we’ll go with here. If you take out the 2010 option, it would mean that Verlander has to be worth 39.8 wins over the next seven years, at an average of 5.7 per season.

It goes without saying that exceeding his value between 2013 to 2014 is eminently achievable for the ace, who has been no less than a 6.3 fWAR pitcher over the last four seasons, but the five $28 million per year seasons? That’s a little more dicey.

The 31 fWAR between 2015 to 2019 that Verlander has to be worth to play up to his contract has only been achieved by six pitchers in baseball history from age 32 to 36: Bob Gibson (43.1 fWAR), Cy Young (35.9), Randy Johnson (35), Roger Clemens (32.5), Dazzy Vance (31.7) and Gaylord Perry (31.6).

Which is to say that only two pitchers (Clemens and Johnson) have accomplished it over the last 40 seasons. Verlander may well be in that class when it’s all said and done, but there’s obviously a far longer list of former aces that says he can’t.

On the other hand, the good news is that the Tigers ace has had less mileage (1553.2 innings) than all of them from age-22 to 29. Plus, if you assume that he will be a 6.5 fWAR pitcher over the next two seasons — meaning that he has to total only 26.8 fWAR to match the value from 2015 to 2019 — the list of pitcher grow to seven over the last four decades.

It’s not impossible, but it’s not exactly a safe bet that the Tigers are hedging their fortunes on.

With all that being said, they do have those dollars, and if there was any one pitcher you’d want to hedge them on, it’s Justin Verlander — and that makes the contract the right thing to do.

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