Charting the Rest of Justin Verlander’s Career

Let’s be honest. Justin Verlander was awful last year. His ace title has been removed across baseball, and I don’t think there is anyone in Detroit who thinks he’s the best pitcher on the staff right now. He definitely wasn’t worth $20M last year, and we certainly don’t want Verlander’s contract to anchor a ship full of bad contracts sailing for Philly status (spoiler alert, we’re not there yet).

But can he get back to where we want him to be? I certainly want to believe so.

Using Baseball-Reference WAR crunched in Excel, in 2014 Justin Verlander ranked 41 out of 47 qualifying starters (>150 IP)  with a WAR of 1.1. His ERA+ of 88 was the lowest of his career, and his K/9 dropped by a full two points from 2013 to 6.9. As a result, his K/BB was 2.45, the worst it’s been in 5 seasons. He was the 7th worst starter in the AL last year. We would have been disappointed had he been the 7th beset. Hard to justify $20M for that.

I should point out, however, that using FanGraphs WAR rankings for 2014 AL qualifying starters, he finished 15 out of 39. The reason for this is that JV’s FIP ERA (a stat that FanGraphs relies heavily upon) was 3.74 (contrast that with 18 game winner Jered Weaver’s FIP 4.19). Despite FanGraphs’ favorable algorithm, I think we can all agree that there is reason to be concerned. (All other WAR references below come from Baseball-Reference.)

So what’s coming next?

Verlander turned 32 yesterday. He still has plenty of good years left, but what we can really expect? To get an idea, I decided to take a look at similar pitchers and how they performed from age 32 on. I had it in my mind that I was going to have to spend hours compiling the data, but Baseball-References’ similar pitchers and similarity score tools made finding the data a cinch. You could get lost in the formulas and applicability, but to simplify things, I focused on similar pitchers through age 31. Thus, instead of the pitchers whose career was most similar to JV, or any pitcher who had a single season age-wise most similar to JV, I looked at pitchers who, through age 31, were the most similar to JV. The top 10, starting with the most similar:

– Mike Mussina
– Tim Hudson
– John Smoltz
– Jack Morris
– Tom Glavine
– Andy Pettite
– Dwight Gooden
– Josh Beckett
– Ramon Martinez
– Dennis Leonard

Using the amazing tools at Baseball-Reference, I was easily able to pull up the career stats for these 10 pitchers from age 32 onAverage of 6 additional seasons (though very few had a productive final season), 16.6 WAR, 3.85 ERA, and 111 ERA+.  That translates to a WAR of 2.76 per year. Assuming a value of $6M per win (there’s a great discussion on value per win here, if you’re into that sort of thing), then $20M per year isn’t quite so atrocious. But it’s not a great deal by any means. Remember, he’s signed through 2019 with a vesting option in 2020.

So, okay. Maybe this can work. 16.6 WAR left isn’t so bad, and 4 of those 10 pitchers had WARs of 25+ from age 32 on. Eyeballing the median, it looks to be around 15, so 16.6 is probably a reasonable expectation. If JV pitches at least 5 more seasons (like Mussina, Hudson, Smoltz, Morris, Glavine and Pettite did), his expected WAR from today on jumps to 26. I’ll definitely take that.

So now I’m feeling pretty good.

But JV is a power pitcher, and the drop in velocity on his heater and his resulting inability to strike people out is terrifying. For the four seasons prior to 2014, his K/9 was consistently between 8.8 and 9. Last year’s precipitous drop to 6.9 a legitimate cause for concern. With this in mind I took a closer look at the power pitchers from the list above to see if they had similar decreases in K/9, and then what they accomplished from age 32 on.

Including Verlander – the top 4 career K/9 from the list above are…do you wanna guess? (this is a fun game)…




1) Beckett 8.47
2) Verlander 8.33
3) Smoltz 7.84
4) Gooden 7.70 (man did he decline quickly)

So there are three left to analyze.

Josh Beckett. Beckett’s K/9 dropped from 8.9 to 7.0 from age 28 to 32. It wasn’t as rapid as what we saw with JV, but Beckett did experience a similar decline . It rebounded nicely over his final three years, but that was after he got shipped to the NL (note I haven’t done any further study into whether there should be an NL/AL adjustment, but I’m guessing there are at least 1-1.5 opposing pitchers Kd per game). His walk rate stayed about the same after 32. From age 32-34 he went 13-25, with a 4.10 ERA. His WAR over those final 3 years was 2.3. Total.  Beckett retired last October and let’s pray that he’s not a good comp for JV.

John Smoltz. Smoltzie had an incredibly productive 10 years from age 32 to 42. Well, 32-40, as 41 and 42 were kind of lost. He posted a combined WAR of 27.8, a 3.27 ERA (NL), his K rate actually went up during that time, by about 5% and his walk rate went down by 28%. At ages 38, 39, and 40, Smoltz posted WARs of 4.9, 5.9, 4.6, which are 3 of the top 5 seasons of his career. John Smoltz as a baseline is very encouraging.

Doc Gooden. Doc pitched until he was 36. None of those last 4 years were any good. 4.87 ERA, WAR of 4, a 25% decline in K rate, and a 45% increase in his BB rate. Gooden’s K rate dropped from 8.6 at age 25, to 7.1 the next year. Excluding an injury filled season when he was 29 and only pitched 41 innings his K rate never rose above 6.9 after that. So while we have obvious performance reasons to exclude Doc, I don’t think he’s a great comparison from a similarity through age 31 standpoint.

Also note that the average velocity on Verlander’s fastball has fallen steadily from 95.6 in 2009, to 93.1 in 2014 and he had been able to adjust to the dip until last year. So perhaps last year really is an outlier in terms of K/9. For example, maybe his breaking ball wasn’t as sharp, or he became more predictable in certain counts. All questions for another day.

In conclusion, we have two ways of looking at the data above. If we’re just looking at comparable pitchers through age 32, then we have cause to think that JV can be above average for 6 years, or even great for 6-8 years provided he lasts at least 4 years. This isn’t entirely assuring, but the odds aren’t bad.

Narrowing down the list above to the top 3 K pitchers presents a dichotomy. He’s Josh Beckett and out of baseball in 3 years, or he’s John Smoltz and still has Cy Young worth years ahead of time. (At this point in time, I’m sure he’s not Doc Gooden).

Overall, I’ll say I feel a little better about things than when I started. But the analysis above has presented me with a few new thoughts which I’ll explore later this year. Off the top of my head:  1) Were there other dominant factors which can help explain the K/9? 2) Did other power pitchers ever experience such large drops in K/9 and were they able to rebound? 3) How has his pitch selection changed? and, 4) Is his fastball his best pitch? And I will be paying very close attention to his velocity and strikeouts this spring.

39 thoughts on “Charting the Rest of Justin Verlander’s Career”

  1. Verlander had core muscle surgery last January. Could it be, at his age, and with the type of pitcher he is, his woes last season were a result of the surgery, missed offseason workouts, or even psychological effects?

    At any rate, early impressions from Spring Training are extremely positive:

  2. Great info/research Kevin! One point to clarify and factor into the analysis: JV did make $20M last year, but this year and the following 4 seasons he will be paid $28M per yr (a 40% raise over the $20M rate)…w/a $22M vesting option for 2020.

    Since 2006, with the exception of ’08 and ’14 season, he’s been very good to great – so (because of the core surgery) he gets ‘a pass’ on last season, but that ‘pass’ expired the minute Ausmus and DET’s bullpen blew (what shoulda been) a JV “W” in game 2 at BAL. JV will be the 2nd highest paid player in the MLB this year – and like it or not, with that comes added scrutiny and pressure.

    i fully expect JV to bounce back this year, but not to ‘Cy Young form’ from a couple years ago. How he does in ’16 – ’19 depends a lot JV’s evolution as a pitcher… and whether or not he follows Sandy Koufax’s advice: “I became a good pitcher when I stopped trying to make them miss the ball and started trying to make them hit it.”

    If it already has not happened, it’s pretty clear at some point, the consensus will be that DET entered into a bad contract w/JV… DET fans can only hope that ‘consensus’ is not painfully obvious for at least a couple more years.

  3. I concur K in D, am hoping for a good but not great season from JV. Seemed to me he had a really hard time with the 2 strike pitch, and the stats (K/9) prove that. He has to learn to figure out how to finesse the hitter instead of trying (without success) to throw it past him. 140-150 innings with a .500 winning percent would be OK, but not worth 20 plus million, IMHO.

  4. Good article, Kevin.

    Did anyone else have the thought last year that perhaps the biggest problem with Verlander was… predictability? He should be smart enough to figure that sort of thing out, except that stubborn often goes along with smart.

    I have confidence. I see him going down the Smoltz path. Much harder to imagine JV going down in history as the legendary albatross contract.

  5. I know it was only an exhibition game …but…I don’t know if I can take that much hysterical laughter from the announcing booth!…this isn’t NFL Fox pregame!!!

  6. There are many teams that would love to have Verlander in their rotation. The Tigers are lucky to have him.

    1. Yes, but I read the article. It’s not a shin injury; it’s a shin injury, so nothing to worry about.

    1. i agree… and i’m going to make a bold prediction that collectively this year’s DET starting pitchers will have a better year than last year.

      …as for the bullpen – one would think that given last year’s bullpen struggles, that this year’s pen ‘has to be better’…so i’ll go with that conventional thinking for the pen – and hope. Seriously though, i do think that barring any injuries, the DET pen has the pieces to be very effective – if (and that’s a big “if”) managed/handled properly. Some of Ausmus’ early proclamations (that this guy is a ‘set-up guy’ or this guy is a ‘7th inning guy’) make me a little nervous – in that he’ll stick w/pre-conceived or assigned ‘labels’ rather than bringing in (or leaving in) the best available pitcher at the right time.

    2. Even the Tigers wish they had the Tigers starting rotation. (Kinda like last season.)

  7. I hope that Nathan is NOT our closer this year, especially after today’s pathetic performance! Only bring him in when we have at least a converted touchdown lead or are equally behind and we need someone to eat some innings.

  8. Any of you young fellers been able to discern the sleeve patch on the Jersey? cannot make it out, and nothing on mlb shop yet… just idly curious

    1. What sleeve patch, Jim? Sorry, I live in a cave. I visit the outside world only occasionally.

  9. In general, the Tigers pitching stinks so far this spring. I hope they can get it together, or it will be a long year!

    1. Normally I would say that JV is just working on things and he’ll be fine; but considering the last two years, I am very concerned.

  10. The sleeve patch does indeed have a 50, it says Joker Marchant Stadium 50, it’s the 50th anniversary of the spring training stadium.

  11. As the Tigers fall into last place, Asmus says ‘I am not worried” come when he says that, its always time to worry!!!

    I am sure glad I didn’t blow 2 grand going down watching them flounder….although I would have enjoyed watching Miggy and VMart working on the back fields!!!

  12. Tigers v. Yankees on the MLB Channel at 6:00PM, Tuesday, 24MAR15. A great opportunity to gauge the Spring Trng Tigers.

  13. Cabrera, Cespedes, and Martinez all go long. If that could happen about 10 games or so this season, it should be fun.

    1. I agree, but it is spring training. For example, Kershaw had a 9.00 era last spring, and he did OK.

  14. Glad to see Miggy isn’t that rusty. Same with Avila his out making ability is in midseason form …lets play!

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