If concerns over his long-term health were just murmurs in what was a “down” season in 2013, it won’t take very long before the alarm bells are sounded over Justin Verlander in the coming season.
That’s saying a fair bit, considering that the all-world ace is has long been considered an exception to the rule when it comes to pitchers staying healthy on the mound. He is the preeminent workhorse in MLB, the guy who miraculously only gets stronger as the game went goes on, saving his most knee-buckling curveballs and triple-digit heat for when it counts most; oh, and he’s done it without landing on the DL once in his career. Verlander is special.
Or at least, we wanted to believe that he is, anyway.
Age, of course, cares not for narratives like these, and while the right-hander was helping his Detroit Tigers to the postseason and taking home individual accolades, time was taking its toll. That was easy enough to ignore when he followed up his remarkable Cy Young and MVP-winning 2011 season with another brilliant 7.0 fWAR campaign, and it wasn’t really until 2013 that the seeds of the question were sown: how much did throwing all those innings affect Verlander’s arm?
Given the standard of excellence he represents, it’s not a question that’s easy to answer. After all, while he did reduce his workload in 2012, he still ended up throwing 266.2 total innings through the regular season and playoffs. Yet, his average fastball velocity dropped a few ticks from 95.0 mph to 94.7, while he continued to use the pitch less at 43.8 percent compared to 46.9 in 2011.
Were these subtle signs of the issues he’d face in 2013? If they were, it would have been near impossible to tell at the time. His fastball still topped out at 101.5 mph when it was its most potent, and we all knew that Verlander wouldn’t be able to throw triple-digit heat his entire career anyway; not relying on the fastball as much was simply an ongoing process he’d been taking over the last few seasons en route to being the complete pitcher that the baseball world knows.
Then, like clockwork, he didn’t touch 100 mph at all in 2013, and those 538 innings from the two seasons prior came crashing into perspective as his average heater fell to 94.0 mph.
So what now? Well, there are a couple of ways to look at it. The optimist would say that the Tigers ace was still very strong last year, throwing 241 total innings that included a trio of vintage starts in the postseason. He’s still capable of being the best in the game, and his decline in velocity is simply par for the course — he’ll continue to adjust and dominate like he did in the playoffs.
The concerned view, on the other hand, sees a pitcher whose physical prime has peaked, and a player whose performance is on a downward trend.
Is this perhaps a case of inflated expectations given his back-to-back Cy Young-caliber seasons in 2011 and 2012? Maybe, but it’s no doubt jarring to see a .251 BAA and 1.31 WHIP next to Verlander’s name, even if he was still an excellent 5.2 fWAR pitcher last year. The continued decline in velocity will raise questions in 2014 — not so much about if he’d be able to adapt, but if he can still be the workhorse and do it while continuing his DL-free streak.
For someone who is reputed to be one of the most diligent in offseason conditioning, you’d think that wouldn’t be an issue; but if what happened in the last couple of years were light scratches to the armor, the recent announcement of the 30-year-old’s “core muscle repair surgery” is his first tangible mortal wound.
How will he bounce back? Does the surgery put things through a new perspective where health is front an center? Will there be more concern if his velo continues to decline? What happens if he ends up rushing his recovery and lands on the DL?
Only Verlander can dispel these questions on the mound starting in Spring Training, of course, but there’s no doubt that they will be there regardless of however you choose to see their validity. Still, even in the best-case scenario, this is a healthy pitcher who has likely peaked physically, and considering that the star is signed through at least 2019 with $160 million still owed on the deal, you can bet that the Tigers will want some answers.