Last year’s top hurlers struggling

Tigers ace Justin Verlander wasn’t dominant Monday. But he looked something like himself, striking out 13 Pittsburgh Pirates to come within one of his career high.

Turns out the 2011 American League MVP didn’t forget how to pitch during his three consecutive clunkers.

“It’s not like I was going out there to shove it, to show the rest of the world, ‘Hey, I’m still me,’” Verlander said after Detroit’s 6-5 win over Pittsburgh. “It was gratifying for me to continue to trend in the right direction. That’s the only thing I was concerned with. I can’t expect next time out to be perfect. I’m still a little bit off.”

The quality start — seven innings, three earned runs — was Verlander’s first since May 5. Now he has a 3.68 ERA, which would be the second-highest of his career over a full season.

And yet he’s doing well in comparison to many Cy Young Award candidates from last year.

Consider:

… Of the 18 pitchers to receive Cy Young votes in either league, seven have watched their season ERAs increase by more than two runs, including award winners David Price and R.A. Dickey. Jered Weaver, Fernando Rodney, Jim Johnson, Matt Harrison and Matt Cain are the others.

… Only five pitchers — less than one-third of the group — have improved upon their ERAs from last season.

… Among the nine National Leaguers to receive votes, Clayton Kershaw is the only one to improve upon his Fielder Independent Pitching, according to FanGraphs.com. The other eight regressed.

In short, a lot of famous pitchers are having seasons that fall somewhere on the disappointing-to-lousy scale.

What to make of this?

“First of all, you don’t know if everybody’s totally healthy, for one thing,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “Health is No. 1. Maybe a lot of innings last year — some guys can handle that, some guys can’t. Plus, people make adjustments up here.

“Normally when you see guys that are really good pitchers — this is what I think, anyway — and all of a sudden they’re wild, there’s a good chance they don’t feel good.”

Leyland is right: Price, Weaver and Harrison are on the disabled list. Dickey has pitched with back and neck soreness. Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto has made only five starts this season because of a strained right lat.

Verlander, whose ERA is up more than one run from the same time last year, believes we shouldn’t read too much into the trend among elite pitchers. Not yet, at least. “It’s a full season for a reason,” he said.

Still, one consequence has been the emergence of several candidates to make All-Star teams for the first time: Matt Moore, Hisashi Iwakuma and Anibal Sanchez in the American League; Patrick Corbin, Matt Harvey, Shelby Miller and reliever Jason Grilli in the National League.

Verlander, in fact, ranks third among Tigers starters in pitching WAR, according to FanGraphs.com. The league-leading Sanchez and Max Scherzer are ahead of him.

The Chicago White Sox — with Jose Quintana, Hector Santiago and Dylan Axelrod in their current quintet — entered Monday with the AL’s best rotation ERA.

Cole Hamels, two months into one of the richest pitching contracts in baseball history, is 1-8 with a 4.43 ERA and leads the majors in losses.

Peculiar, isn’t it? Or maybe we’re so used to excellence from the Cy Young winners and All-Star starters (Verlander and Cain in 2012) that anything less is stunning.

“I don’t mind the bar being set high,” Verlander said. “I don’t mind being one of the faces of baseball. That’s what I’ve always envisioned since I was a little kid. That’s where I want to be.

“I know that comes with more scrutiny. You have a couple bad starts and the world’s on your shoulder: ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ Hey, that comes with the territory. I’m OK with that. I can deal with that.”

Right now, the numbers say that’s not the case for all of last year’s pitching stars.

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