Justin Verlander has a 4.00 ERA and $167 million coming his way

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Even though the Tigers still had Justin Verlander signed for two more years, they signed their right-hander to a huge contract this spring that essentially made him the highest-paid pitcher ever. He’ll receive $28 million per year every year from 2015-2019.

That’s kind of a scary thought right now, isn’t it? Verlander gave up seven more runs Thursday in a loss to the White Sox. He fell to 10-8 with a 3.99 ERA for the season. Six times this year he’s allowed at least five earned runs in an outing. Only Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey and Jeremy Guthrie, with seven such outings, have done so more frequently.

That’s certainly not to say Verlander has been all bad. He has eight outings in which he’s allowed one or no earned runs, including two this month. His ERA ranks just 24th in the AL, but he is sixth in strikeouts and seventh in innings pitched. He’s hardly been a liability.

What is worrying is that Verlander’s average fastball has tumbled to 92.7 mph this year, according to Fangraphs’ Baseball Info Solutions data. He came in at 94.3 mph in 2012, and he was in the 95-96 mph range each of the three years before that.

Verlander isn’t falling apart, but it seems pretty likely that his peak has already come and gone. Before his Cy Young season in 2011, his career best ERA in six seasons was 3.37 and WHIP was 1.16. The mid-3.00 ERAs seem like the better bet for the future than the mid-2.00s of 2011 and ’12. And that’s probably the optimistic scenario for the Tigers, considering that he was baseball’s hardest working pitcher from 2009-2102.

The Tigers still had Verlander under control for two more years when they extended him this spring. Technically, it was announced as a brand new seven-year, $180 million contract, but in reality, it was a five-year, $140 million extension for 2015-19. At that rate, the deal had very little upside. Verlander needs to remain one of baseball’s best pitchers to justify that kind of salary, and that’s an awful lot to ask. There aren’t many pitchers in history who can claim to have had an eight- or 10-year run as one of baseball’s best.

If not for the extension, the Tigers would currently owe Verlander $27 million through the end of 2014. That sounds a whole lot better to me than $167 million through 2019.

Cardinals encourage players not to hide injuries

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In Major League Baseball, players are routinely pressured to play through injury and pain. Sometimes it’s just a minor ache, and sometimes it’s a very serious injury. The pressure comes from everywhere: the players themselves, their peers, coaches, front offices, media, and fans. Players who develop a reputation for landing on the disabled list are described as “soft” and “fragile.” Players who battle through the pain get talked about as “gritty” and “dedicated.”

Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the Cardinals are trying to encourage their players to be more honest about their health. The culture surrounding this is tough to change, but manager Mike Matheny wants his players to come to him if “anything that is off.” As Goold notes, Alex Reyes and Matt Bowman revealed they were, in Bowman’s words, not “entirely forthcoming.” Carlos Martinez said he pitched tentatively because he was “scared” of re-injuring himself. Matheny also called pitcher Michael Wacha “a great liar” when talking about his arm health.

Matt Carpenter has also played through injury and takes pride in it. He’s an example of the old mentality the club is trying to pierce through. Caarpenter said, “I’m a believer in if you’re getting paid to do a job and you’re capable of doing the job — even if it’s 85 percent of your best — I feel you have the obligation to be out there. That is the mentality I’ve always used. I could have very easily, at times last year, sat on the [disabled list], but I felt like I could still go out and do my job.”

Goold points out that players approach dealing with health issues differently depending on where they’re at in their careers. A young player who just got called up has pressure to stay in the big leagues and appear in games, so he may not want to address a health issue. A player who has already secured a multi-year contract may have less pressure on him and thus may be more willing to come to the trainer’s room.

I’ve long believed that player health will be the next arena in which front offices will separate themselves from the pack. Analytics had been that battleground for a while, but with every club now having an analytics department in some capacity, front offices will have to find value in new ways. Limiting the amount of time that players miss due to injury would be a significant boost for a team and it will start with players being forthcoming about what’s bothering them rather than trying to fight through pain.