In August, as part of a piece I wrote regarding Justin Verlander's first start after a two-week layoff due to shoulder inflammation, I wondered what the Tigers might need to do with him going into 2015. Verlander, who had three top-three Cy Young finishes in a four-year span from 2009 to 2012, had core repair surgery in January and went on to struggle for most of 2014, continuing a downward trend from a glorious peak. The Tigers' bullpen, meanwhile, last season went on about its usual business of giving fans a new "Perils of Pauline" episode with seemingly every save opportunity.
At the time, I opined that Detroit might in the short term put Verlander in the bullpen for the playoffs. However, the longtime ace held on to his rotation slot with a hopeful close to the regular season. He notched five wins in his final seven starts, including going 2-0 with 10 strikeouts and no walks in 15 1/3 innings in the final two games. But then he tossed five uninspiring innings in his only postseason start.
Heading into 2015, the Tigers' pitching, and Verlander in particular, is at a bit of a crossroads. Max Scherzer could sign a lucrative free-agent deal elsewhere. David Price is entering the final year of his contract before he becomes a free agent, and some are suggesting the Tigers might look to deal him before he hits the open market. Rick Porcello was traded to the Red Sox in exchange for Yoenis Cespedes.
Replacing Porcello in the Tigers' rotation will be the newly acquired Alfredo Simon, who had a surprisingly good campaign as a starter for the Reds in 2014. But he faded badly in the second half and pitched 80 more innings than any prior season, so regression is possible.
The only Tigers starter other than Verlander who is signed beyond 2015 is Anibal Sanchez. Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Ryan, Buck Farmer and Drew VerHagen are down on the farm, but none of them project to be absolute impact arms going forward.
The Tigers' bullpen is in an even deeper state of flux. Joe Nathan is 40 and pitched to a 1.53 WHIP last season. Joba Chamberlain and Phil Coke also pitched poorly and are free agents. Joakim Soria was terrific for the Rangers in 2014 but struggled with Detroit after coming over in a July trade. Both Joel Hanrahan and presumptive future closer Bruce Rondon will return from Tommy John surgery.
Since 2011, the Tigers' bullpen has compiled the fifth-highest OPS (.710) and is tied for the fourth-worst ERA (4.00). It has allowed 31.5 percent of inherited runners to score, fifth-worst in the majors. After converting 84 percent of save opportunities in 2011, it nailed down only 71 percent of them in each of the last three seasons. In 2014, the Tigers blew eight ninth-inning leads out of 82 opportunities (10 percent), while the rest of the league tossed away only 7 percent of such situations. The Tigers' bullpen ranked 23rd in the majors in total WAR last season, while the rotation, even with Verlander's mediocrity, ranked second.
Verlander, meanwhile, has thrown 32,535 pitches in the regular season, the sixth-most through anyone's age-31 season since pitches began being counted in 2000. Add in another 1,688 postseason pitches and you have over 34,000 pitches dispensed from that arm in his 10-year career. Last season, Verlander's strikeout rate dropped precipitously from his usual low-to-mid 20s to 17.5 percent. Batters swung and missed at only 20.3 percent of his pitches and chased only 28.7 percent of them. Both of those figures were his lowest since ESPN began having access to that data in 2009. His line drive percentage also climbed to a career-worst 22.7 percent.
According to Brooks Baseball, Verlander lost 1.2 mph off his fastball (to 93.5) and 0.5 mph off his slider and changeup last season. He was worth 1.1 WAR in 2014, tied for second-worst among American League pitchers with at least 30 starts. All of this after declining from 7.8 WAR in 2012 to 4.3 in 2013. He is owed $140 million through 2019.
So what does this all mean? I'm wondering if the Tigers would consider using Verlander in a "super-reliever" role beginning in 2015. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was relatively common for a reliever to throw more than 100 innings in a season. There were even six instances of a reliever qualifying for the ERA title. From 2000 to 2009, there were only six 100-inning reliever instances, and there have been none this decade.
Furthermore, in the past 30 years, there have been only seven instances of a reliever hurling 100-plus innings while averaging at least two innings per appearance. It's a collection that includes knuckleballers (Steve Sparks), guys with odd deliveries/minimal stress on their arm (Mark Eichhorn) and rookies (Nate Snell, DeWayne Buice). So why put Verlander in such a role?
His salary is a sunk cost, and the Tigers should want to try to get a larger return than 1.1 WAR annually on their $140 million investment. One could hope that one year post-surgery would restore Verlander to full health, but should 200-plus innings as a top-of-the-rotation ace be expected? Probably not. It is more likely his new baseline, given that he has thrown more than 34,000 pitches going into his age-32 season, has dropped to the middle of the rotation or even a No. 5 starter on any given start.
However, even while recovering from the core surgery, Verlander was effective during the early portions of games, specifically with 50 or fewer pitches thrown. Here are his 2014 BA/OBP/SLG/OPS splits based on pitch count. Note the improvement in his second 25 pitches then a drop in performance after 50 pitches:
Pitches 1-25: .253/.302/.425/.727
Pitches 26-50: .255/.312/.348/.659
Pitches 51-75: .283/.361/.433/.794
Pitches 76-100: .294/.327/.454/.781
These results mirrored his numbers against batters in their third at-bat of the game:
First time through order: .253/.309/.418/.727
Second time through order: .260/.324/.346/.670
Third time through order: .312/.357/.504/.861
That Verlander's slash stats improved significantly from the first to the second time through the order suggests a window of effectiveness between two and four innings. Here are his composite ERA and slash lines for innings one through six in 2014. Note the third inning line:
First inning: 5.34/.264/.319/.424/.743
Second inning: 2.61/.256/.293/.453/.746
Third inning: 2.32/.235/.313/.296/.609
Fourth inning: 3.19/.279/.358/.393/.751
Fifth inning: 4.65/.283/.324/.409/.733
Sixth inning: 6.67/.298/.370/.500/.870
Wouldn't it make sense to bring him in to start the sixth or seventh inning, preferably against the lower part of the lineup, and let him pitch three innings? This is where value optimization and WAR come in. Depending on which formula you use, one win above replacement is worth about $7 million on the open market. At $28 million per season, Verlander needs to average four WAR per year for the next five seasons for the Tigers to break even on their investment. Is there a better chance of him doing that as a diminished starter or as Mark Eichhorn 2.0?
Verlander has made 298 starts through his age-31 season. There have been 43 other pitchers to do that. Of those 43, only 14 had at least one four WAR season going forward (age-32 and older) and only four had at least five such seasons:
• Roger Clemens: Eight seasons between 1996 and 2005, ages 33-42
• Bert Blyleven: Five seasons between 1984 and 1989, ages 33-38
• Tom Seaver: Five seasons between 1977 and 1985, ages 32-40
• Steve Carlton: Five seasons between 1977 and 1983, ages 32-38
Even with how terrific and durable Verlander has been, the odds seem to be against him becoming the fifth pitcher on that list.
As for whether he can generate four WAR per year as a reliever, you should understand that, from 1955 to 1984, there were 60 such instances. In 1982, six relievers achieved that mark. Conversely, there have been only 23 such reliever seasons since 1985. Mariano Rivera put up the most recent one (4.3 WAR in 2008). Jonathan Papelbon had a 4.9 WAR season in 2006 in the fewest innings (68 1/3). Neither one of them averaged two innings per outing. Eichhorn's 1986 season, in which he hurled 157 innings in 69 games, is the only one in the past 30 years to feature at least four WAR (a gaudy 7.4 in fact) and average more than two innings per appearance.
That's mainly because managers have eschewed the "super reliever" in favor of LOOGYs, ROOGYs, seventh-inning guys and setup men. I'm of the opinion that the more pitchers you bring into a game, the more variance/risk you introduce. If you use five guys to get through three innings, you have five chances that the particular pitcher of the moment doesn't have it that day. If you instead use a "super reliever," you reduce that risk (while still having other arms available should he not have it). Using a super reliever could allow managers to add flexibility back into their roster, replacing a seventh or eighth man in the bullpen with another bat/glove off the bench.
Of course, Detroit would still have to replace Verlander's 200 innings in the rotation. Finding 200 innings of zero to 1.1 WAR starting pitching isn't impossible and in this circumstance is more efficient on a dollars-to-WAR basis.
So will the Tigers do this? They seem willing to take on financial risks; Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Verlander all have long-term contracts as examples. However, they may have a hole in their rotation if Scherzer signs elsewhere. There would also be the public outcry over Verlander's perceived "demotion to the pen" and "a $28 million reliever?" Farmer and the other arms in the minors would have to show new levels of pitching acumen in spring training to replace Verlander's lost innings in the rotation in 2015. Detroit also has $17 million tied up in Soria and Nathan. All of this makes an Eichhorn transformation highly unlikely.
But that doesn't mean I won't be rooting for a return to the days when relievers routinely pitched more than two innings and Verlander jogging out of the Comerica Park bullpen to start the seventh inning.
Diane Firstman runs the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.