The Tigers had gone 11-17, lost 10 games in the AL Central standings and even fell out of the wild-card lead within a span of four weeks. Entering the nightcap of Saturday's day-night doubleheader against the last-place Twins, they had given up 32 runs and 34 hits in dropping the first two games of the series 20-6 and 12-4.
Robbie Ray and Buck Farmer were the starting pitchers in those games. They were call-ups due to injuries to Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. Ray and Farmer had made a combined 19 starts above Double-A prior to their promotions, and the inexperience showed. They combined to pitch 2 2/3 innings in their starts, leaving the bullpen to cover the remaining 13 1/3 innings, in which Detroit yielded 19 runs. So, it wouldn’t be an understatement to proclaim Justin Verlander’s start Saturday night as the most important of his and the team’s season. The Tigers needed their one-time ace to be solid, and to give them some length to rest the beleaguered pen.
Of course, Verlander has been a question mark for much of the season. A skipped start to calm some shoulder inflammation hasn’t quieted the concerns regarding the accelerating fade of the 2011 American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player. Over the past four years, his WAR has declined from 8.4 to 7.8, 4.6 and finally this season’s 0.6, per Baseball Reference. He’s walking only one more batter per nine this season than in 2011, but he’s experienced a 3 mph drop in four-seamer velocity this season (95.7 to 92.7), to go along with 2 mph velocity drops in the rest of his repertoire. As a result, his swinging strike rate has fallen from 17.7 percent to a below league-average 15.2 percent this year, and he’s gone from striking out 23.5 percent of batters to only 17 percent. Regardless of how much the defense may have improved behind him, he’s become hittable, allowing more than one hit per inning for the first time in his career.
Given these trending peripherals, one would almost hope it was something truly structural that was ailing Verlander, so that it could be fixed/rehabbed. But if it's truly just shoulder inflammation, which practically every hurler goes through, then Verlander needs to reinvent himself given his new status quo, and do it quickly. Saturday’s assignment, after a nearly two-week layoff, was the first data point for the Tigers to figure out if Verlander could still be a playoff starter, or merely a bullpen piece.
He sailed through a 14-pitch first inning, ending the frame with a swinging strikeout of Joe Mauer on an 85 mph curveball. He sat awhile in the top of the second, as Twins hurler Trevor May labored through 25 pitches, yielding a run on three hits. When Verlander took the mound in the bottom of the inning, he might have been a bit out of rhythm. He gave up a jam-job leadoff single to Kennys Vargas on a 93 mph fastball. After Oswaldo Arcia lined out hard into a double play, Trevor Plouffe hammered the next pitch, another fastball at 93, into right-center field for a double. Kurt Suzuki also went after a first-pitch fastball (15 of Verlander’s first 18 batters saw a first-pitch strike) and singled in Plouffe. Eduardo Escobar worked a full-count walk before Verlander found a little extra velocity, punching out Jordan Schafer on a 95 mph fastball.
After his teammates got him a one-run lead back in the top of the third, Verlander struggled with his command in the bottom of the inning. Danny Santana singled to center leading off and Brian Dozier walked on a 3-2 count. Mauer dropped his bat on a shoestring-skimming changeup, lacing a double to center to score Santana. Verlander got Vargas and Arcia swinging on a beautiful curve and a 94 mph fastball, respectively, but he left a slider up in the zone to Plouffe, who doubled in two more before Suzuki struck out to end the inning.
After the inning, Verlander was seen walking down the dugout steps with manager Brad Ausmus and pitching coach Jeff Jones. Whatever they did between innings seemed to work, as he breezed through the next two in 20 pitches, yielding only a fourth-inning, two-out triple to Santana. Meanwhile, the Tigers plated a run in the fifth and two more in the sixth to give Verlander a 5-4 lead as he headed out to the mound for his 85th pitch.
Plouffe collected his third hit of the night on a flat slider leading off. After recording a flyout and his sixth strikeout, Verlander issued his third walk of the game on a 94 mph fastball. With that, his night was done, as Ausmus pulled him before Verlander even had a chance to plead his case. Blaine Hardy got the final out of the inning. The Tigers tacked on two runs in the seventh and one in the eighth, and survived a shaky ninth from Joe Nathan to get out with an 8-6 triumph and a doubleheader split.
Verlander’s final line: 5 2/3 innings, 104 pitches (67 for strikes), four runs, eight hits (four for extra bases), six strikeouts (all swinging), three walks. Very similar to his early-2014 outings, with some flat pitches, and velocity in line with those starts. One could call it a game performance, but what might be more important is how he feels in the next 24 to 36 hours. Will the soreness/inflammation be back?
From 2006 through Saturday's start, Verlander has thrown an amazing 31,691 pitches in the regular season, over 2,000 more than anyone else. Add in 1,587 additional pitches in the postseason, and you’ve got more than 33,000 pitches of wear and tear on that 31-year-old arm. Some loss of command, control and/or velocity is to be expected, but the concern in Detroit is with the train that is seemingly hauling Verlander’s dominance, or even above-average performance, away at breakneck speed.
Beyond 2014, the Tigers are on the hook for five more seasons and $140 million for an asset in seemingly steep decline. It may have been part of the reason behind the trade for David Price (along with Max Scherzer's possible departure via free agency come November).
In the short term, if Sanchez comes back healthy later this month, Verlander will likely be the fifth-best pitcher in the rotation. Will the Tigers turn Verlander into the most highly paid relief pitcher in baseball history come playoff time (a la the Giants with Tim Lincecum)? Whatever they do come October, they’re going to have to reconstitute their former ace come 2015.
Diane Firstman writes the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.