Tigers are paying for locking up Verlander too early
JUN 10, 2014 7:52a ET
When Justin Verlander signed a five-year, $140 million contract extension in March 2013, you might not have immediately thought of Ryan Howard, whose own contract extension in 2010 had turned into one of the most unmovable contracts in the sport even before it kicked in two years later. Howard was overrated. Howard was in decline. Howard’s physical profile suggested a steep aging curve, and Howard played a position that is, relatively speaking, fairly easy to fill.
None of those assessments apply to Verlander, and yet there was one thing about his contract that was unavoidably Howardesque: It was signed two years before it needed to be. And now, 15 months later, 50 pretty good starts later, it’s closing in on unmovable, if it’s not already -- just as Howard’s is. And it hasn’t even kicked in yet.
Here’s a fun fact: Verlander, 31, has three starts this year in which he has walked more batters than he has struck out. From 2011 through 2013, he had just two such starts, total. If he adds to his tally in his start Tuesday night, he’ll have matched his total for the previous five years.
Fun facts often turn on a bit of cherry picking, convenient boundary setting with exculpatory information being left out, so you’re wise to be suspicious of them. But that one stands in nicely for Verlander’s performance overall: His strikeouts are down, to the point that 74 percent of qualified starters this year (Jason Vargas! Charlie Morton!) have whiffed more batters than he has per nine innings. And his walks are up -- 86 percent of starters are walking fewer batters. This isn’t just Verlander getting the wrong answer on a math test; it’s Verlander getting the wrong answer and showing his work. And his work is a conspiracy theory about lizard people.
Now, Verlander did something like this last year, too. From mid-June through the trade deadline, in nine starts, he struck out 37, walked 28 and barely kept his ERA below 4. By September he was dominant again, leading to the best postseason of his career. “Consider the bookends … ignore the books,” we wrote in the 2014 Baseball Prospectus Annual, concluding that his summer slump was the outlier and that “you’d have to consider him once again the Cy Young favorite entering this season.” If we can ignore one bad stretch, then we can certainly ignore a second one, right?
Not as easily. There are a few reasons to consider this stretch worrisome:
1. Verlander’s struggles this year fit the pattern of practically every pitcher before him: He just can’t throw as hard as he used to. At Brooks Baseball, there is a tool that compares some feature of a pitcher’s performance, such as fastball velocity, to the rest of the league using the 20-80 scouting scale. (In scouting scale, 20 is the lowest, 80 is the highest, 50 is average, and each 10-point jump reflects one standard deviation.) This lets us see not just what Verlander’s fastball has done but how it compares to the rest of the fastballs in a population that is throwing harder every year. In 2009, Verlander’s fastball velocity was a 70 -- two standard deviations better than average, and harder than 97.5 percent of the league’s starters. Since then:
He’s now one standard deviation better than average; a sixth of the league’s starters throw harder than him.
If it were just his command, or just his breaking ball, or just bad luck, or just ability to pitch with runners on base, you might consider that a slump, or something that can be fixed. But just as scouts bemoan that you can’t (really) teach somebody to throw 99, it’s awfully hard to stop the inevitable slide of a veteran pitcher’s radar readings once it has begun.
2. Oh, but it’s also his control and command. Here’s his percentage of strikes thrown in the same time period:
2009: 67.3 percent
There’s going to be some fluctuation from year to year, but this has thus far been a collapse, as he has lost his ability to get batters to chase (his lowest swing-rate on pitches outside the strike zone since 2008) and has thrown fewer pitches in the strike zone. The bulk of this difference is coming on his fastball, which …
3. … has been even worse this year than during his worst stretch of 2013. Not much worse, but certainly worse:
Bad 2013 fastball: 94.4 mph, 66 percent strikes, 7.7 percent whiff rate, 56 percent usage
2014 Fastball: 94.0 mph, 64 percent strikes, 6.6 percent whiff rate, 52 percent usage
The problem with losing fastball effectiveness is that the results can multiply. Verlander’s fastball isn’t as good as it was, so he’s falling behind in counts:
2009-2013: 62.5 percent first-pitch strikes
2014: 58.5 percent first-pitch strikes
Verlander is falling behind in counts, so he’s having to throw more fastballs. Verlander’s fastball isn’t as good as it was, so he’s getting crushed when he’s behind in counts.
Batter ahead, 2009-2013: .269/.435/.442
Batter ahead, 2014: .327/.496/.545
Not all of those extra hits have come on fastballs, because …
4. Verlander is acknowledging this problem -- or, at the very least, his catcher is. His fastball usage has gone down this year despite his being in more hitter’s counts, which typically call for more fastballs. Verlander’s circumstances are encouraging him to throw the fastball a lot, and he’s resisting. When Verlander is behind in the count ...
2009 to 2013: 72 percent fastballs
2014: 60 percent fastballs
He’s also throwing fewer pitches in the middle of the zone, which you could spin almost any direction you want: He’s got better command! He’s got worse control! Or, if you wanted, you might hypothesize that Verlander knows he can’t simply reach back and throw a fastball right past a hitter on 2-0 anymore. He’s having to be more careful. But that’s a hypothesis, nothing more.
5. This is the most crucial one: Just because Verlander bounced back from one stretch doesn’t mean he’s likely to do it again. It’s not encouraging that Verlander went through this last year and came out of it; it’s discouraging because this stretch is now less an outlier and more a part of a pattern.
Which isn’t to say that Verlander won’t come out of it. Shoot, his velocity in his last start was his best of the year; the start before that was second best. His strike rate in those two starts was 66 percent, which is about what it was from 2009 to 2013. He might well throw a no-hitter Tuesday night, win next year’s All-Star game and 2016’s Cy Young award. He might do it because baseball is really, really unpredictable, which gets us back to the original point: The Tigers signed Verlander two years before they had to.
If a GM wants to acquire a pitcher like Verlander, he can draft a slew of pitchers in the first round, wait patiently, and hope a couple survive. Or he can grit his teeth and sign one to a very long, very expensive deal. That’s the cost of doing business, and all but the poorest teams do it at some point, no matter how many of these deals go sour. There’s rarely more than one Verlander available on the open market, and 30 teams that need pitching; that’s the player’s advantage, and players have been taking advantage of that for four decades.
But the clubs have an advantage that they’re often quick to give up: The ability to wait. Verlander wasn’t some pre-arbitration player willing to sign for less than he was worth because he wanted to guarantee his family stability and comfort. His contract didn’t provide the club the upside of team options at the end. He wasn’t entering his prime, the years where a club might benefit from cost-certainty in case the player turns into a much better player.
What he was was the best pitcher in the game, but past tense--even present tense -- don’t guarantee anything for the future. Here were the 10 best pitchers 32 or younger when Verlander signed his contract, as measured by Baseball-Reference’s three-year WAR leaderboard:
What makes Verlander’s case instructive is that he isn’t some outlier who collapsed. He’s not Tim Lincecum, who sunk to the bottom of the league’s starters. He’s not Brandon Webb, who lost his career in one start. He’s just a guy who was really good, and then got worse, at a time when we shouldn’t be surprised. In the list above, all but Kershaw, Hernandez and Hamels have arguably seen their stock drop significantly since then, though there’s room to quibble about the current value of Price and Gonzalez. Decline is not the exception for pitchers, even good ones, even those in their physical prime. It’s the most predictable outcome, just as it was the most predictable outcome for a slow-footed, one-dimensional, post-30 first baseman with shiny glamor stats but red flags everywhere else.
So, yes, when Verlander signed, we should have brought up Howard immediately. Howard was overrated, overpaid and signed too early. Verlander wasn’t overrated. He wasn’t even overpaid. But he was signed too early. The Tigers thought that Verlander was their most valuable asset and that he needed to be locked up. But the ability to wait and see what happened in the ensuing two years was actually their most valuable asset. They gave it away.