The answer to this question may determine the Indians’ ability to stick around in the AL Central this season.
|1. Justin Verlander (DET)||7.88||.346||.985|
|2. Colby Lewis (TEX)||6.89||.338||.898|
|3. Max Scherzer (DET)||6.86||.319||.884|
If Verlander and Max Scherzer are on top of their game, no one can compete with the Tigers in this division. But each pitcher has struggled this season, putting the division up for grabs.
Scherzer’s issues are a concern too, but he’s been plagued more so by a few awful games than consistently underperforming. Verlander, on the other hand, has been underwhelming from start to finish, continuing a disturbing trend from the past few seasons.
At 31 years of age, Verlander appears to be hitting the wall that may power pitchers reach at this stage of their career. He’s no longer able to throw the ball past anyone and he’s struggling to transition into becoming a finesse pitcher.
While the effects of Verlander’s loss of velocity are hitting him hard this year, it’s been a consistent trend for the past four seasons. Verlander has lost velocity and seen an increase in opponents batting average and slugging percentage every year since 2011.
When you throw 95+, fastballs up in the zone are an effective weapon. Additionally, even if you miss slightly, you can get away with it. To see these points illustrated, just look at Verlander’s heat map of fastballs from his Cy Young/MVP season in 2011.
But now that Verlander’s fastballs is hovering around 92 mph, he can’t get away with mistakes and he’s no longer able to successfully challenge hitters up in the zone.
So can Verlander adjust in time to save the Tigers? That depends on whether or not his decline is simply due to a loss of “stuff” or if it’s a greater issue.
If Verlander has simply lost his ability to blow the ball past hitters, I’m not going to bet against him finding a solution. Most elite power pitchers are able to make the necessary adjustments later in their career (John Smoltz is a great example) once they lose their ability to overpower everyone.
But not everyone is convinced that Verlander has simply been slow to adjust to his declining tools. The Tigers’ blog Bless You Boys has theorized that Verlander’s issues may also be mechanical in nature, which would help to explain his increased walk percentage this season as well.
Verlander has been shelled in each of his last two starts against the Royals and White Sox. If the Indians can keep that streak alive, the Tigers may legitimately have to worry that a major weakness has been exposed in their rotation.