This is an unfortunate post to write. For one, it’s the first thing I’m writing back from a week off from the blog mines. Secondly, it’s about the only professional sports team I still care about as purely a fan: the Detroit Tigers.
Specifically this post is about the artist formerly known as Justin Verlander.
In the world we live in few are going to sympathize with a professional athlete making $28 million this season — and $140 million though 2019. Throw in that Verlander dates Kate Upton and there is going to be a lot more mockery and sneers compared to anything else.
The Blue Jays bombed Verlander in the fifth inning on Sunday, pushing his 2015 ERA up to 6.75 in 22 2/3 innings of work. Without being overly dramatic he is nothing but a shell — a dried up husk — of the pitcher who won the Cy Young and MVP in 2011. (And who was pretty damn great the following year, too.)
In the wake of his lousy 2015 — which began with his first trip to the disabled list due to a Spring Training triceps injury — the usual questions about his workload will be asked. Was former Tigers manager Jim Leyland right to push him for all those extra innings, leaving him in for the eighth when he could have come out after seven? Verlander threw 200+ innings from 2007-2014, leading the Majors in innings pitched in 2009, 2011 and 2012 — along with a league-high six complete games in 2012. Factor in the additional innings in the postseason and it’s a lot of wear and tear for an arm that used to get better as the game wore on, sometimes touching nearly 100 mph in the eighth or ninth.
Hindsight in sports is always 20/20.
As a fan watching in 2012 it would be lying to say I didn’t enjoy Verlander’s workhorse, old school performances. Sure he threw 238 1/3 innings in the regular season that year, but he still had enough to throw a complete game against the Athletics during the Game 5 clincher of the ALDS in October. Verlander was cut from a different cloth. Pitch counts? Smitch counts.
I’m a fan, of course. Perhaps the Tigers brass should have put a little more thought before extending Verlander’s contract in early 2013 for $180 million and seven years. Rewarding a player with a rich contract on past performance is always risky — especially with the guaranteed dollars involved in Major League Baseball.
Via Brooks Baseball, it’s easy to tell that Verlander literally lost his fastball. In that fabled 2012 season he averaged around 95 mph all year and pushed it to 96 in the playoffs. In four starts in 2015 he’s barely cracking 94.
At first glance a couple miles off a fastball doesn’t seem like a lot, but Major League players catch up and adjust. They foul off pitches and can time fastballs, eventually. There’s a reason Verlander threw 94 pitches in just five innings vs. the Jays on Sunday.
Or to put it another way, it’s painful to watch a strikeout pitcher unable to strike opponents out. Last year Verlander only managed 159 strikeouts in 206 innings, as he continually couldn’t put batters away with two strikes. Long at-bats ran up his pitch count and lead to many bad things on the mound.
Compounding matters is his massive contract extension, which keeps him getting paid like Felix Hernandez and Zack Greinke, despite not coming close to their performance on the mound. The Tigers will pay him like an ace/No. 1 when he’s more like a journeyman innings-eater, if that. Compounding matters is the contract is too massive (and long) for another team to take a flier on, even if the Tigers eat most of the money — it’s also too costly to cut bait with Verlander unless he completely loses it. Instead the team is in the unenviable position to run him out there every fifth day and hope lightning is recaptured in a bottle.
The contract also didn’t leave the team much room to negotiate with Max Scherzer, who signed with Washington to $210 million in the offseason, where he’s thrown a no-hitter and is on pace to win the NL Cy Young Award. David Price is likely next to leave Detroit this winter.
Ultimately what’s the most-depressing part about Verlander — beyond the numbers, beyond the innings counts and declining velocity — is that it’s sad to watch someone you’ve enjoyed playing for your team sink so low. The Detroit radio announcers used to joke in the first inning, “there goes the no-hitter” and they weren’t far off base. There was a spell earlier this decade when Verlander took the hill where you thought you might watch something historic.
Now? When Verlander pitches the only thing you can think about is his massive long-term contract and how it’s going to cripple the team going forward — a horrifying thought if you’re a fan of the team, but admittedly some nice schadenfreude for everyone else.
Maybe Verlander figures out a way to reinvent himself, gets a little more snap back on his curveball or figures out a way to get more groundball outs and anchors the Tigers staff going forward. Otherwise we’re going to see a lot more of this — rueful obituaries for a still active career.