It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! No, It’s a Verlander!

Last night, literally at the very last minute, the Detroit Tigers and the Houston Astros completed a trade that will send Justin Verlander to the team with the best record in the AL for a package of prospects that is sorely needed for the rebuild that the Illich family has finally consented to. Just what will be the impact of adding last year’s (controversial) Cy Young runner-up to the presumptive top seed in the American League postseason?

There’s a reason everyone was expecting the Astros to land one of the big name pitchers available at the non-waiver deadline in July. They are in need of help in their rotation. Lance McCullers is on the DL and Joe Musgrove has not been good this year. And then there was the criticism they had been receiving for not finding a deal.

That said, how much does Verlander help their rotation in a playoff series? Well, if we’re judging this addition solely by name value, you might be tempted to say it’s a big add. Unfortunately for the Astros, we’re not, and Verlander isn’t living up to his big-game reputation so much these days.

Of the four starters who were likely to comprise the Houston rotation in October, Verlander has a better FIP than just one of them: Mike Fiers. If McCullers gets healthy, then Fiers would move to the pen and Verlander is 5th on that list, or 6th if we include Collin McHugh.

Dallas Keuchel – 2.91

Brad Peacock – 3.12

Collin McHugh – 3.63

Charlie Morton – 3.88

Lance McCullers – 3.92

Justin Verlander – 4.04

Of course, we would never make an assertion like “Verlander isn’t one of the four best starting pitchers on the roster” with just one number to back it up, so here are some additional tidbits that might help convince the skeptics in our audience.

Verlander’s season stats appear to be a pretty accurate representation of what he is at this stage of his career. He’s giving up a career high hard-contact percentage of 35.2%; he hasn’t been above 28.5% since 2007, when it was 32.0%, and it was as low as 23.0% in 2015. That correlates well with his career-high line drive rate of 24.4%, up 5.8% from last year. It also squares nicely with his .283 BABIP, which is just .003 lower than his career rate. His increase in FIP from last year to this year (up .056) is driven by harder-hit balls, not by poor luck or poor defense. He simply isn’t the same guy who nearly won the Cy Young last year.

In fact, he might be drastically different. His BB/9 is also a career high at 3.51. When you mix that with the fact that his fastball velocity is up to its highest point since 2011 (95.68 mph), it looks like he may be overthrowing this year, which could be an attempt to compensate for diminished movement and control.

The harder fastball seems to be working, in that the isolated power against it has dropped from .211 last year to .108 this year. The changeup has been consistent the last two years, going from .216 to .214. The slider and the curve, on the other hand, have led to higher isolated power values: the slider went from .095 to .219, and the curve increased from .079 to .164. Essentially, he’s become a fastball-only pitcher, which is enough to limp along when you can work in the neighborhood of 96 mph. In the playoffs, though, he’s likely to see plenty of hitters who can crush good fastballs.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Verlander’s release point has been trending down steadily over the last four seasons. This isn’t unusual for a guy his age. Shoulders wear down over time. Throw overhand long enough, it’s guaranteed to happen. Unfortunately, the change in release point has an effect on the way pitches move, and it seems that Verlander is producing less effective breaking pitches as a result.

In short, he’s well into his decline phase, and while last year was a wonderful momentary resurgence, his glory days may well be fully behind him now. Verlander is overthrowing his fastball because he can’t use the rest of his arsenal as effectively. This is leading to more walks, and has the effect of limiting his options in tough counts. Batters have a .947 OPS against him when they get ahead. That’s not someone you want to be counting on to provide stability in the postseason.

This trade may help the Astros to hang on to the best record in the AL, as it minimizes the amount of time Musgrove will spend on the mound and can put Peacock back into the bullpen, where he is more of a weapon once McCullers gets back. But once they reach the playoffs, Verlander may not even be one of their four best options.

Featured image courtesy of si.com

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Damian grew up smack dab in the middle of Connecticut and was indoctrinated into the culture of Red Sox fandom from the moment he was old enough to start swinging a bat. A number of trips to Fenway park and meeting Ellis Burks at his dad's bar cemented what would become a life long obsession that would pay off in spades in both the recent run of post season success and the extra bit of connection he would have with his father throughout the years. After a brief three year stint living in the Bronx with his wife where he enjoyed leisurely strolls through the neighborhood with a Red Sox t-shirt on to provoke the natives, he settled in Roanoke, Virginia where he can fall out of bed and land at a Salem Red Sox game. Damian is a co-host for SoSHCast (the Sons of Sam Horn podcast) along with Justin Gorman.

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