Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
Take a picture, Justin. This is what rock bottom looks like.
This isn't quite like the end of Goodfellas when Ray Liotta is getting chased by FBI helicopters but it's pretty close. Justin Verlander's universe, a pitching utopia once built on high 90s fastballs and a heart-stopping 12/6 curve, is slowly crumbling.
Last night, Verlander was Julius Caesar and the Royals were Brutus. The betrayal included 12 hits, seven earned runs and two walks. Verlander finally walked off the mound in shame after six innings of excruciating labor.
Once considered the gold standard for pitching excellence, the Tigers right- hander has been relentlessly average this season, contributing just six wins in 15 appearances. His last seven starts have been particularly unkind as Verlander has stumbled to a 2-5 record with a 7.83 ERA over that span.
Fantasy baseball writers are doctors of the soul. We don't just scrape the surface. We dig deeper to find the truth underneath.
Sure Verlander's results are troubling but what good are they if we can't understand them? Verlander isn't lobbing up puff balls for his own amusement. There's something fundamentally wrong with the game's best pitcher and by god I'm not leaving here until I find out what it is. Let's investigate.
When a pitcher is struggling, my first question is, "Is he throwing strikes?" In the case of Verlander, the answer is yes, but not as many. Between 2011 and 2013, Verlander threw over 11,000 pitches. Close to 66 percent of them were strikes. This year, his strike percentage has fallen to a little over 62 percent.
In short, that means Verlander isn't fooling hitters like he used to. Good pitchers don't throw it right down the middle. They get hitters to chase pitches that "look" like strikes but are actually out of the zone. At his peak, Verlander was getting hitters to swing at 35 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. His 28.7 percent chase rate this season is his lowest since 2008, the same year Verlander led the majors in losses with 17.
Poor command can lead to a higher walk rate (Verlander is on pace to hand out a career-high 101 free passes this season) but that's not really what worries me about Verlander. What concerns me is when Verlander gets behind in the count and overcompensates by getting too much of the plate. That's exactly what led to Verlander's undoing yesterday when he left a fastball middle-in to Omar Infante, who belted it out of the park. He made the same mistake (except this one caught the outside corner) on a bases-clearing double by Billy Butler in the fifth inning. Opponents are now hitting .353 against him when he gets behind in the count and that's directly tied to Verlander's inability to command his pitches.
The beauty of owning Verlander in fantasy, at least in the past, has been his remarkable durability. The workhorse right-hander has logged at least 200 regular season innings in seven straight seasons.
Even though he's only 31, Verlander has thrown nearly as many innings as Cliff Lee, who is 35. That takes a toll on a pitcher, so it's understandable that Verlander would lose some of his velocity along the way. And that's certainly been the case this season. Verlander's average fastball is clocking in at around 93.4 mph, which is still good but it's not nearly as fast as Verlander threw in 2011 when he won the American League Cy Young Award (95.0).
But again, that's not even Verlander's biggest issue. When a pitcher's fastball velocity starts to go, it makes their change up less effective. That's especially true of a pitcher like Verlander who throws a hard change up. In fact, for some reason, Verlander's change up this season (86.6 mph) has actually been faster than in years past. When your off-speed pitch is only a little slower than your heater, it makes that change up look like a batting practice fastball. Now you see the problem. Good hitters like Billy Butler will pounce all over that.
Verlander fell into some bad habits around this same time last season, finishing May and June with a 4.93 ERA. He was better after the All-Star break (3.41 ERA in 14 starts) so maybe he was just fatigued. By and large though, Verlander's technique has been one of his strong points. While scouts have cringed over Stephen Strasburg and Tim Lincecum's unconventional mechanics, Verlander's delivery and arm angle have always been easy to repeat. A consistent motion usually leads to consistent results.
I'm no pitching expert having bowed out of Little League by age 12, but I know what to look for when a pitcher is struggling. For example, Boston starter Clay Buchholz has had major problems with his landing point this season. Remember, the strength you generate from your lower half is just as important as your upper body.
Verlander seems clean in that regard but watching last night's game, it's clear his release point is higher than it once was. Though varying your release point provides the benefit of keeping a hitter off balance, it's a little disturbing to see Verlander tweaking his mechanics after so many years of success. Verlander usually throws from a three quarters arm slot but on the home run he gave up last night, it almost looked like he was throwing it overhand. Brooks Baseball, an incredibly useful site that keeps track of everything from velocity to how much movement you see on certain pitches, confirmed what I had seen on tape. During Verlander's Cy Young season in 2011, his vertical release point was around 6.4 feet (about six feet, five inches) while this year it's been around 6.7 (six feet, eight inches). For Verlander, the difference between ace and average is three inches.
When it comes to game management, I blame Verlander and his manager equally. First of all, times change. Verlander is never going to throw 100 mph like he did in his early years. He needs to adapt by throwing more off-speed pitches and to this point, it doesn't seem like he's willing to do that. Though Verlander's fastball rate this season (he's thrown it 53.6 percent of the time) is lower than it was in 2013 (56.0), it's still too high.
Another issue I see is that first-year manager Brad Ausmus is leaving Verlander in way too long. Three of Kansas City's runs came in the sixth inning last night. Verlander should have been out of the game by then. His sixth inning ERA is 10.80, so why leave him in past the fifth? Not only is this practice hurting the Tigers' chances of winning but it's destroying Verlander's confidence. You have a bullpen, so why not use it?
I think we can all agree the world is a better place with Justin Verlander in it. Let's hope he figures this out before the helicopters start chasing him.