Down year? What down year?
While the generally accepted narrative on Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander‘s 2013 is that he had an off season/down year/disappointing step back at 13-12, the actual story is actually a whole lot less boring because well … let’s just say that his decline has been significantly exaggerated.
It’s not exactly his fault that the Tigers owned two of the top three starting pitchers in the game this season, with Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez‘s 6.4 and 6.2 fWAR ranking at second and third (tie) respectively just behind Clayton Kershaw. Perhaps only in the “what have you done for me lately?” world is a 3.46 ERA (though a 1.31 WHIP) through 218.1 innings considered a disappointment.
Then again, being the highest-paid pitcher in the history of the game will do that to someone, I suppose.
Still, if the expectations for Verlander are truly that he’s simply going to cruise to the Cy Young every year, I think you could reasonably say that he’ll only join a host of MLB aces in disappointment because there are only so many awards to go around.
Here’s what the Tigers have gotten from the ace, though: despite all of his ups and downs, he still led Detroit starters with innings pitched, ranking eighth in the majors. His 5.2 fWAR season places him out of the top tier of 6.0-plus fWAR hurlers, but still puts him at seventh in the majors, ahead of fellow luminaries such as Chris Sale, Yu Darvish and David Price.
The veteran’s velocity has taken a well-documented dip, but he’s been largely been able to maintain his strikeout rate at 8.95 K/9 (9.03 in 2012), while maintaining a good HR/9 rate at 0.78 (0.72 last season). Considering that he’s only given up line drives at a marginally higher rate than last season (22.7 vs. 22.2 percent), the baseball gods likely had a thing or two to do about his four-year high .316 BABIP and .251 BAA.
So really, for all of the talk about how Verlander needs to rediscover his old self for the Tigers ahead of the ALDS, what they really needed was quite the opposite — because he never really went anywhere at all.
As a matter of fact, the 30-year-old was just where he was expected to be over the final month of the season, leading the team with 39.2 brilliant innings and posting a 2.27/1.11 ERA/WHIP through six starts. Though he did go just 1-2 (thanks, Tigers offense), he led the team with a 4.80 K/BB ratio, and his 1.7 fWAR in that month was not only the best on the team … it was better than all starters but Ubaldo Jimenez in the entire league.
Just ask the Oakland Athletics, who were thoroughly dominated by Verlander in Game 2. Yes, they won it anyway, but at this point, you’d have to think that the former Cy Young and MVP is just about the last pitcher they’d want to face in a do-or-die game.
Yes, even the Cy Young favourite Scherzer would be an easier matchup.
So while a nice narrative in the do or die Game 5 might be on the $180 million man’s potential redemption for a disappointing 2013, and whether he’s ready to show Detroit why he deserves to be the team’s go-to guy once again — the question should really be, “why not Verlander?”
After all, he is one of the league’s best and the best Tigers pitcher going — and isn’t that what the team is paying him for to begin with?