It takes a lot for me to change my mind. I insisted 24 was a good show well into its ...
Wait, that was the lead to my Ubaldo Jimenez piece from Tuesday. Anyway, it still applies, though in the opposite direction. Whereas my point about Jimenez was that his brief hot streak at the end of last season wasn't enough to believe in him long-term, the brief struggles of Justin Verlander last year weren't enough to get me off his bandwagon.
In Verlander's last five starts of 2013 - including postseason - he went a total of 42 innings and gave up one run, a solo home run to Mike Napoli in the American League Championship Series. He struck out 53 and walked seven, allowing 19 hits. Even at the end of a at-the-time disappointing season, he was showing he was still the Verlander who had been Verlandering for years.
But a five-start sample isn't enough for you? I hear you. Isn't enough for me, either. Let's look at the bigger numbers from 2013, that "disaster" for the once-upon-a-time best pitcher in baseball.
Ignore his 13-12 record, because by now you surely know how meaningless that is. Verlander's ERA was 3.46, which was for all intents and purposes equal to his 2009 and 2010 mark, when he finished third and 11th, respectively, in Cy Young voting. He struck out 8.9 guys per 9 last year, which has been a fairly consistent mark for four years now.
So what was different? Well, let's look there.
BABIP - Verlander allowed a .319 BABIP in 2009, but had floated much lower in the years between then and 2013, with a .286 in 2010 and a .273 in 2012 sandwiched around an otherworldly .236 in 2011. Well, that number rose back up last year, to .316. That's not a number he's likely to get to again.
Velocity - Verlander's fastball averaged 95 mph or above 2009-2011, dipping all the way to 94.7 in 2012. Last year, it fell further, down to 94 flat. Now, parsing the samples can be dicey, but Verlander sat around 92, 93 early in the season, and those speeds were up to his regular 94-95 range by season's end. Maybe he was nursing an injury early in the year, or maybe he had a few extra energy drinks late in the year, or maybe some combination, but he was throwing the ball at his normal speed by the time he started Verlandering again.
BB/9 - Not since Verlander became all-caps VERLANDER had he had as much trouble with the bases on balls as he did last year. He hadn't walked more than 2.8 guys per nine innings between 2009 and 2012 - and had generally floated in the low 2s - before that rate rose to 3.1 last year. It's possible this can be chalked up to his diminished velocity early in the season - an extra split-second to decide on a pitch location can help - but regardless, I'll admit this is a concern. On the other hand, remember that BABIP? With a higher BABIP, a pitcher will inevitably have to face more hitters in less advantageous situations, which logic dictates will lead to at least a few more walks.
There's a lot of painting with an optimistic brush in there. Maybe, at 30 in 2013, Verlander started feeling the effects of seven straight 200-inning seasons. Maybe Max Scherzer really has passed him as the Tigers' top starter, and Verlander is staring down the barrel of a late-career role as a second banana, more Diamondback Curt Schilling than Red Sox Curt Schilling.
But we have years of data to suggest Verlander has plenty of chance to bounce back this year, plus the 2013 data offer several possible holes. Call me a romantic, but I need more than a few months of still-good production to cash out on a consensus top starting pitcher from a year ago.
I have Verlander as my No. 5 starter, behind only Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish, Adam Wainwright, and Cliff Lee. He comes in at 12th in our rankings, with guys like Madison Bumgarner, David Prize, and, heck, Scherzer ahead of him. Honestly, the top 12 or 15 among starting pitchers - or, being fair, numbers two through 12 or 15, because Kershaw's so doggone good - are all good enough that you aren't likely to go wrong. I can't confidently say Verlander is above anyone in that tier. But I definitely want to stress that he is as qualified a member of the tier as anyone there.