Tigers in Transition: Justin Verlander and the definition of insanity

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This is part 2 in a three part series in which HBT looks at the Detroit Tigers. Yesterday we discussed how a Tigers team which has won the past four AL Central titles finds itself at a crossroads. Today we look at their former ace, Justin Verlander, who finds himself at a crossroads of his own. 

DETROIT — If Justin Verlander was a comic book character he would not be one of those angst-filled, super heroes form 1980s and 1990s gritty reboots. No, he’d be a suave, carefree and charming hero who actually has a lot of fun while defeating all of the bad guys. Sort of like Iron Man with fewer gadgets, only slightly less money but with a better-looking girlfriend and less of a tendency to engage in self-doubt. Really, it’s good to be Justin Verlander.

And, until last year, it was very bad to face Justin Verlander. Since becoming a regular part of the Tigers rotation in 2006 and on through the end of the 2013 season, Verlander was 137-75 with a 3.38 ERA (good for an ERA+ of 128) and 1,664 strikeouts against 540 walks in 1,760.2 innings. He has a Rookie of the Year Award, a Cy Young Award, an MVP and was on the short list for Best Pitcher on the Planet.

Since that time, however, his arc reactor has been on the fritz. In December 2013 Verlander injured some abdominal muscles during offseason conditioning drills. At the time it was thought to be the best possible timing for a bad injury and, following surgery, he was ready for spring training and Opening Day. He made 32 starts last season but, as Verlander told me when I spoke to him on July 4, he did not think he pitched healthy at any time in the 2014 campaign. The results reflected that. He had a 4.52 ERA and saw a sharp reduction in his strikeout rates.

This past spring Verlander was injured again, straining his triceps. The road back from that injury was much longer. He had three MRIs and a chronic buildup of fluid in his arm which kept him from returning until mid-June. Since mid-June his performances have been, in a word, ugly. In six starts he has given up seven runs twice, six runs once and has allowed 39 hits — eight of them homers — while walking 12 in 34 innings. That translates to an ERA of 6.62 and a WHIP of 1.5, all while his strikeout rate has once again dropped and his walk rate has climbed.

source:  Most observers have noted that Verlander’s velocity took a dip in 2014. Which is true. It ticked back up in his first couple of starts this year and has settled back down again to the same rate he had in 2014: 93.1 m.p.h. on his fastballs. But velocity is not the be-all and end-all of pitching. For one, thing, unless your name is Nolan Ryan, a pitcher’s velocity is always going to go down a bit over time. Indeed, Verlander’s has been on a mild decline since it peaked in 2009 and 2010 and, until last year, it wasn’t that big an issue. And it may not be the biggest issue for him now. A pitcher can do well in Major League Baseball with a 93 m.p.h. fastball if he does other things well.

The biggest issue for Verlander is that hitters are putting wood on the ball way more often than they used to and, when they are, they’re hitting the ball hard and far. Specifically, they’re teeing off on fastballs he throws inside the strike zone, making contact on them 87.8% of the time. That’s the highest contact rate for strikes Verlander has posted since he was a rookie. Batters are swinging and missing at his strikes a mere 8.7% of the time, which is his worst rate since 2008. When they make contact and hit the ball in the air, it’s going over the fence 16.3% of the time which, while based on only six starts, is still a dramatic increase over his career numbers in that regard.

Put simply: Verlander is trying to throw heat past guys like he did when he was younger but isn’t getting away with it anymore.

When I spoke to Verlander on July 4, I asked him about that. About how, as a pitcher gets older and loses a couple of ticks on the gun, one has to adjust. I mentioned Tom Seaver to him and how he made adjustments as he got older. Greg Maddux and how, even if he is remembered for his location and control, he came up with a plus fastball and perfected his wizardry as his career wore on. I asked him how, now that he’s not a 97 m.p.h. fireballer who can mow anyone down, what sorts of changes he’s making to his approach. Based on what he told me, it doesn’t sound like he’s making any yet.

Q: Obviously when you’re 18, 20-years-old you feel like you can do anything —

A: [interjecting, with a big, confident smile] I still do!

Q: You still do?

A: Yeah.

Q: OK, but do you have a different mental approach now, though, compared to when you were younger? Do you think ‘OK, I can’t just throw it by these guys now, so I have to change what I’m doing?’ Make them guess a bit more?”

A: In fairness I don’t think I pitched healthy at any point last year, so I’m not going to completely change an approach that has worked for so long based on one season. So I’m just looking to get back in rhythm and know I can pitch before I start making any major adjustments.

At this point it seemed clear to me that Verlander wasn’t going to accept my premise of him being at a point where, maybe, it was time to make adjustments. Which is totally fair. He had forgotten more about pitching in the five minutes we had been talking than I’d ever know in my life so he’s allowed to set the premises here. But I still wanted to know his view of change and aging in the abstract, even if he didn’t think he needed to now. So I gave him a hypothetical:

Q: OK, say it’s five or six years from now and you’ve lost a few ticks. Who would you talk to or who would you look at as an example of how to adjust and be a different pitcher than you were before?

A: I’m good friends with Kenny Rogers still. He started out as a hard-throwing lefty and by the time he got here he was a crafty lefty. I guess I’d call him [laughs].

Q: You plan to be a crafty righty someday?

A: Sure, ha ha ha.

But not yet. On that day, he said that he’s still not back to 100% yet. That starting the season on the DL and not being able to ramp up and get into this normal routine has prevented him from being himself and that he’s not going to panic and seek to make major adjustments until he’s been 100% and it’s still not working.

“I’m not quite back to normal yet,” Verlander said. “I felt like in spring, the last start right when I got hurt, everything was coming together. I was kind of right where I wanted to be. But then I obviously hurt myself. Neither of those things is quite back where it was then. But it’s getting there. I think velocity’s been pretty good. Not excellent, but I think it’s been getting a little bit better every start. And location, you know, you just gotta pitch.  That’s the best way to get your location. My last three innings of my last start were better than my first three. Had to knock the rust off a little bit. Hopefully I’ll just continue to get better and better.”

But he hasn’t gotten better. The day after our conversation, Verlander gave up seven runs on seven hits in five innings. He also gave up a 450-foot foul ball to Edwin Encarnacion that didn’t show up in the box score. One of the homers he gave up was on a fastball right down broadway to Jose Bautista in a hitter’s count. It seemed as if Verlander was channeling his 2009 self and thinking that he’d toss his heater right by one of the best power hitters in the game.

The next time I saw him pitch, this past Sunday against the Orioles, he was touched for seven more runs on eight hits and didn’t make it out of the fourth inning. After Sunday’s game he said he needed to execute better out of the stretch. To “pitch better.” He said there was a “tip your cap” factor in play too, as the Orioles teed off on what he considered to be good pitches. That may be true.

But it’s also true that, from all appearances, Verlander is approaching the game the same way he did back in the day when he used to throw the ball 97 miles per hour. That he is doing the same thing he has been doing for the past two years now, and expecting different results. There’s a word some people have for that. It may be an overused cliche, but the fact is that the Tigers’ former ace needs to find a new way to get guys out because the old ways are not working.

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

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Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.