Justin Verlander's 2014 has been a struggle. In the first week of January, Verlander wound up on the surgery table after injuring his abdominals in offseason workouts. Now, Verlander is experiencing one of the worst stretches of his career. Over his last six starts, the Tigers ace has allowed at least five runs five times. In 37 2/3 innings, 35 runs (31 earned, 7.41 ERA) have scored and Verlander has walked 18 against just 24 strikeouts. Verlander's ERA has skyrocketed to 4.61 as a result, leaving some to wonder if all the years and all the pitches on his right arm have finally caught up to him.
Verlander, however, sees something else. "The stuff was there," the 31-year-old told reporters following his last start, an 8-2 loss to the White Sox in which the righty surrendered four walks, eight hits and seven runs. Verlander's average fastball velocity in his two June starts has been a strong 95.6 mph, no different from his peak. His average fastball is nearly two mph faster than in April, when he posted a 2.38 ERA and a .684 opponent's OPS over 34 innings. Verlander's strategy, then? "Just execute a little bit better and repeat," he explained, "it's not tinkering anymore."
Verlander had the same response a rough stretch last May. Verlander carried a 1.55 ERA in seven starts through May 5, but went on to allow 16 earned runs over his next three starts (12 2/3 innings), including a 2 2/3-inning, eight-run outing May 16 against Texas that remains the worst start of his career.
"I think I had the best April of my career, but I'm always a perfectionist," Verlander told Fox Sports's Jon Morosi after the third start of last year's rough stretch. "I wanted to be better. So I started tinkering, and I feel like it had the opposite effect." Verlander was concerned about an early dip in his velocity, as his average April fastball clocked in at 93.7 mph.
Verlander's perfectionist streak carries through to his workout program, but after throwing 266 2/3 innings in 2012, Verlander postponed his spring workouts. "I feel like it had a lot to do with being three weeks behind in spring," Verlander told Morosi of his velocity drop. Over his next four outings, Verlander turned in four quality starts. He wasn't in Cy Young form, but he turned in a quality 3.39 ERA from May 27 through the end of the season.
The opening to Verlander's 2014 is eerily similar. The winter abdominal surgery required six weeks of rehab, cutting even deeper into Verlander's offseason workout program. Like 2013, Verlander enjoyed success in April despite a velocity drop. And like 2013, Verlander is now dealing with a rough stretch he claims results from tinkering with his mechanics in order to regain the lost velocity.
"I feel like the process of trying to find out what was a little awry in my mechanics led to [my location] being off," Verlander said of his 2013 issues. "I think I was throwing 60 percent strikes with my fastball, which isn't me at all." Brooks Baseball confirms. Since 2007, Verlander has thrown 68 percent strikes with his fastball. Over his three-start rough stretch last May, that number dropped to 61 percent.
The same 61 percent fastball strike rate has characterized his last six starts as well. The result is more walks, inflated pitch counts, and more at-bats in which Verlander is forced to pitch from behind. Verlander's 3.8 BB/9 would be a career high (excluding his two-start 2005 cup of coffee). And when Verlander falls behind, he all but abandons his curveball, which falls from roughly 18 percent usage to under five percent with the batter ahead in the count. Although Verlander is known for his huge fastball, hitters own a paltry .164 average and .230 slugging percentage in 1,228 at-bats against the curveball since 2007.
Last year, Verlander was able to recover and become a fine number two starter in the season's second half. Come the playoffs, Verlander was back in full ace form, as he held the A's and Red Sox to one combined run and 10 hits over 23 innings of work. As Verlander himself said, the stuff is still there, and there's little reason to believe he isn't capable of rediscovering peak form once again.
The need for tinkering and rediscovery is a new one for Verlander. Perhaps as age makes regular tweaks more necessary, these struggles will become a regular occurrence. But Verlander is a perfectionist, and more importantly, he's a perfectionist who has shown a knack for achieving it. "Guys with track records usually find a way," Verlander told Morosi in 2013. "Once I find it, it's going to be really good." He was correct then. Monday against the Royals, he'll try and find it again. And if he does, you'll know it.