Worrying about Justin Verlander

Duane Burleson

Thursday night, Justin Verlander gave up some runs. A bunch of runs, actually. Over his last two brilliant seasons, Verlander's ERA was 2.42; this season it's 3.99. A little higher than Bud Norris's. Another thing they have in common: exactly the same WHIP.

Has Justin Verlander suddenly become Bud Norris? Hardly. But Verlander was the best pitcher in the American League in 2011 and again in '12, and it's awfully hard to argue that he's been anything like the best pitcher in 2013. Should anyone be worrying? Hardball Talk's Matthew Pouliot is worrying:

What is worrying is that Verlander’s average fastball has tumbled to 92.7 mph this year ... He came in at 94.3 mph in 2012, and he was in the 95-96 mph range each of the three years before that.

Verlander isn’t falling apart, but it seems pretty likely that his peak has already come and gone. Before his Cy Young season in 2011, his career best ERA in six seasons was 3.37 and WHIP was 1.16. The mid-3.00 ERAs seem like the better bet for the future than the mid-2.00s of 2011 and ’12. And that’s probably the optimistic scenario for the Tigers, considering that he was baseball’s hardest working pitcher from 2009-2102.

The Tigers still had Verlander under control for two more years when they extended him this spring. Technically, it was announced as a brand new seven-year, $180 million contract, but in reality, it was a five-year, $140 million extension for 2015-19. At that rate, the deal had very little upside.

Yeah, that was the weird thing. If they'd waited another year, was his price likely to go up? Was he likely to become so disenchanted with the organization that he wouldn't have listened to reasonable offers?

Pouliot is exactly right: As brilliant as Verlander pitched in 2011 and '12, very few pitchers have been able to maintain that sort of performance for more than a relatively brief few seasons. Among the best pitchers, for every Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens there's a Johan Santana or a CC Sabathia. How many Cy Young winners never won 200 games? Or 150?

Are we making too much of all this? Maybe. But Verlander's drop in fastball speed means something, doesn't it? Just as Sabathia's seems to mean something? It's not that 93 miles an hour isn't a perfectly acceptable fastball. But we know that Verlander could routinely pitch tremendously at 94 and 95 and 96; so far, we don't have any real evidence that he can pitch as tremendously, with any real consistency, at 93. Doesn't mean he can't; does mean there's a new element of uncertainty.

Except it's not new. Uncertainty was always there, but the Tigers essentially ignored it. Just as they ignored the possibility that Prince Fielder won't be a great hitter when he's 35.

So far, all this ignoring has worked out pretty well for them. We'll check back in two or three years.

For much more about Verlander and the Tigers, please visit SB Nation's Bless You Boys.

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