By Zach Bernard
When the baseball calendar turns into August, the focus of national coverage shifts almost exclusively to the playoff races and those teams who made blockbuster deals at the trade deadline in their hunt for a championship. Tragically, this shift neglects the teams relegated to the cellars of their respective divisions. Sure, these teams always have something worth talking about, but those storylines always get lost in the shuffle of pennant and award races.
Indeed, the 2015 Detroit Tigers have been one of the season’s greater disappointments, though save for Dave Dombrowski’s departure and a dugout scuffle between Jose Iglesias and James McCann, their failures haven’t been nearly as tabloid-worthy as, say, the Nationals. Lost in all of this has been the startling revival of Justin Verlander as a dominant starting pitcher.
For those with short memories, Verlander was one of the game’s nastiest aces, peaking in 2011 when he went 24-5 over 251 innings, resulting in a 6.4 WAR that helped him earn both the American League’s Cy Young and MVP awards. An equally-impressive 2012 campaign earned him a seven-year, $180 million contract with the Tigers guaranteeing him as part of the rotation for a long time.
At Verlander’s best, he progressed and got better with each inning he pitched. One would marvel at his pitch count reaching 120 by the eighth inning and his fastball velocity still peaking between 98 and 100 miles-per-hour. His ability to mix speeds to straight-up own hitters late in games was truly a sight to see, and an invaluable asset to then-manager Jim Leyland, whose late-inning options were less-than-reliable at the time.
Once he earned his big contract, however, Verlander failed to recapture his old magic. He was never a bad pitcher, but certainly not the kind of guy you would want to pay $28 million per season; between 2013 and 2014, he went 28-24 with a 3.99 ERA and 3.50 FIP. His strikeout-to-walk ratio dropped more than one full point, from 3.89 across 2009-12 to 2.69 over 2013-14. An increase in hits allowed, no doubt aided by a .317 BABIP over those two seasons, contributed to the unwelcome influx of baserunners, leading to far more runs crossing the plate.
Verlander’s 2015 season appeared to be off to a similar start. After spending the first two months of the season on the disabled list, he returned to the rotation on June 13 against the Indians. In his second start of the season, the Yankees touched him up for six runs (three homers) and ten hits over 6 2/3 innings. Following another rough start against the Orioles on July 19, Verlander was 0-3 with a 6.62 ERA and 34 innings pitched across six starts. Something needed to change for the former ace.
What came so naturally to the league’s most exciting pitcher needed to change, and for a 32-year-old starter with a full mantle earning $28 million, change can be difficult. But his adjustments led to immediate success, and in a season where Prince Fielder and Alex Rodriguez will be debated as the “Comeback Player of the Year,” Justin Verlander’s rapid improvement may sadly fall by the wayside.
So just how good has Verlander been? In 13 starts since that dreadful July 19 showing against Baltimore, the tenth-year veteran has posted a 2.22 ERA across 93 1/3 innings in 13 starts. His strikeout-to-walk rate has improved to 4.32 during that span despite a dip in velocity on his formerly dominant fastball (which averaged 95 miles-per-hour in 2011 and now sits at 93, according to PITCHf/x), and hitters have only been able to muster a .206/.249/.299 slash against him. Verlander has logged 11 quality starts during the stretch.
It’s a stark contrast to Verlander’s previous two-and-a-half seasons, but a testament to his work ethic and desire to get better. In a story done by ESPN’s Buster Olney just last month, he admitted to almost never viewing scouting reports and essentially “winging it” on the mound for most of his career. He began researching trends of hitters and changing his approach, and that, along with the suggestion from his pitching coach Jeff Jones to start throwing more fastballs, has been the key to Justin Verlander reclaiming his former glory.
The results have made Verlander as fun to watch as he was back in 2011 and 2012, with his most notable performance coming during a near-no-hitter against the Los Angeles Angels on August 26. He eventually surrendered a double down the left field line to Chris Iannetta, but still salvaged the win in the most vintage Verlander performance of the season. And he captured headlines after his September 23 start against the White Sox, in which PITCHf/x logged his 111th and 112th pitches of the afternoon at 99 miles-per-hour, a common theme in Verlander’s peak years.
It remains unclear whether or not Verlander can sustain his success into 2016 or through the remaining length of his contract in Detroit. However, 13 starts ceases to be a “small” sample size and this renaissance could very well indicate a new and improved Justin Verlander into the future. The one certainty is that baseball is a much more exciting game when Verlander can pitch late into games and dominate hitters, because when he does, there’s nobody quite like him.