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Justin Verlander’s Return Looms Over Tigers Season

Justin Verlander was quite possibly the American League’s best pitcher from 2009-2013, as he made the All-Star Game each season and won both the Cy Young and MVP awards in 2011. Verlander had more than 200 strikeouts in each of those seasons and has thrown over 200 innings every year since 2006, when he tossed 186. Of course, Verlander won’t reach that number this season as he gets ready to make his belated 2015 debut. The former ace began throwing off a mound this week but a return to the Tigers is not yet imminent.

Will the Tigers ever get the pitcher from 2009-2013 back?

From 2009 to 2012, Verlander’s fielding independent pitching (FIP) was between 2.80 and 2.99 every year–an impressive figure. More obviously, he struck out a ton of batters, leading MLB in strikeouts three different seasons. In 2013, his FIP rose to 3.28 and he struck out his fewest batters since 2008. He was still an elite starter but last season’s 3.74 figure (and ugly 4.54 ERA) was a red flag. Furthermore, his WHIP ballooned to 1.32 and 1.40 the last two seasons after five between 0.92 and 1.18.

When Verlander strained his right triceps in spring training, it was a legitimate concern for Detroit. The Tigers are off to another good season at 21-14, but they’ll need Verlander to fight off Kansas City for the Central division crown. It’s been a frustrating season for the former MVP:

Here we are in the middle of May and I haven’t pitched in a game yet, so that’s very frustrating. I told Kevin, after I get the green light, it’s going to be hard to slow me down because I’m champing at the bit, I’m ready to go so we kind of have to find a middle ground where he’s holding me back and I’m pulling as hard as I can to get back out there.

The Tigers appear to be approaching Verlander’s return cautiously, which is smart. David Price, who suffered the same injury to his pitching arm in 2013, has counseled Verlander to remain patient and not rush the process. If all goes well, the Tigers should get their $28 million man (Verlander’s five year extension at that price kicked in this season–a massive concern in Detroit) sometime in June.

08 SEPTEMBER 2014:  Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) is set to deliver a pitch during a regular season game between the Kansas City Royals and the Detroit Tigers played at Comerica Park in Detroit, MI.

Will Verlander help or hurt the Tigers rotation?

Justin Verlander has traditionally been an almost supernaturally healthy pitcher. His streak of eight straight seasons with more than 200 innings pitched is an insane accomplishment in today’s injury-riddled pitching landscape. He led baseball in innings in 2009, 2011, and 2012. Given Detroit’s prudent rehabilitation for Verlander, he should be fully healthy when he does return to the mound.

The flipside is that look how many innings this guy pitched the last eight years! Verlander’s velocity was always his biggest weapon and in the past, he actually gained effectiveness and speed as the game churned on. Unfortunately, his average velocity on fastballs has dropped every season since 2009 when it was 95.6 MPH, per FanGraphs. In 2012 it was 94.7, but by last season he was down to just 93.1. The sub-94.7 MPH average velocity Verlander hasn’t posted a WHIP below 1.32.

Perhaps an extremely extended spring training will help Verlander regain some speed on his fastball, as he surely won’t be eating 200-plus innings again this year. More likely is that his velocity continues dropping, or at the least hovers around 93 MPH. He’s also coming off his first real injury, so Verlander has the odds stacked against him.

The Tigers owe Verlander all of the money. They are and will be committed to getting the most out of him as long as he is on their payroll. The Justin Verlander of diminishing value from recent seasons would still undoubtedly bolster Detroit’s pitching staff. But if somehow, someway, the MVP can get back to his dominant ways, the American League could be in trouble.





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