Two years ago, Justin Verlander was the best pitcher on the planet. It was one of those pantheon seasons -- you know, when you mention the pitcher and the year and you immediately know the season and maybe you even remember the numbers: 24-5, 2.40 ERA, 250 strikeouts, Cy Young and MVP awards.
In 2013, however, Verlander was just sort of another guy. In both seasons, he started 34 games, but in 2013 he pitched 33 fewer innings, allowed 38 more hits and walked more batters while striking out fewer. In 2011, he allowed no runs or one run in 16 starts; in 2013, he did that 12 times, but more problematic was that he had many more bad outings, allowing five or more runs in eight starts. His ERA rose to 3.46, which ranked 16th among American League starters, and his 1.31 WHIP ranked 24th. His strikeout-to-walk ratio had deteriorated from 4.4 to 2.9. A good year? Yes. But a Verlander year? No.
Much was made of the decrease in his average fastball velocity, from 94.8 mph in 2011 to 93.3. Verlander himself talked about minor mechanical issues. Some speculated that after 538 innings over the previous seasons, maybe Verlander was simply suffering from mental fatigue as much as anything. Indeed, he looked more like the Verlander of 2011 and 2012 in the postseason, allowing just one run in three dominant starts.
Still, it's fair to ask: Will Verlander ever be VERLANDER again?
One thing I did was look at some all-time great pitchers to see whether they had an "off" year mid-career. The answer: Not too often, injuries notwithstanding.
For example, in 1974, the year after winning the Cy Young Award with a 2.08 ERA, Tom Seaver fell to 11-11 with a 3.20 ERA (the only time his ERA was over 3.00 in the first 12 seasons of his career). He pitched through a hip problem, as he explained in a Sports Illustrated article the following year:
"I had had a tender shoulder in 1973," he said, "so I went to spring training last year with the idea that I was not going to hurt my arm. I didn't push myself throwing. I felt it would all be there when I needed it. When the season opened, I tried to throw hard and nothing happened. Then I tried to compensate by overstriding. The constant pounding, the strain, put my pelvic structure out of balance. The muscles in my back were pulling down. There was pain in my hip." He pressed a fork down on the table for emphasis. "My mechanics were all wrong. I couldn't get far enough out of my problem to look at it. I was scared. Throwing off balance like that, I could have easily hurt my arm."
The same year, Jim Palmer went 7-12 with a 3.27 ERA, the only season between 1970 and 1978 he didn't win 20 games. Palmer injured the ulnar nerve in his elbow, finally going on the disabled list after losing seven games in a row. He recovered after six weeks of rest. Steve Carlton had his own pantheon season in 1972 when he went 27-10, 1.97 -- only to follow that up with a 13-20, 3.90 season. He reportedly lost the feel for his slider that year, but when you look at the record, 1972 was actually the outlier season at that point in his career: Carlton's strikeout-to-walk ratios from 1970 to 1975 were 1.77, 1.76, 3.56, 1.97 and 1.76. It wasn't until 1976 that Carlton really gained the consistency with his slider and reeled off three more Cy Young seasons.
Roger Clemens was 30 in 1993 when he posted a 4.46 ERA, after leading the AL in ERA the previous three seasons. But he, too, battled injuries that year, including a groin pull that landed him on the disabled list. The next year, he ranked second in the AL in ERA (2.85) and had the lowest opponents' batting average (.204) in the majors. Even in 1996, when then-Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette famously declared him washed up, Clemens led the league in strikeouts (257).
For the most part, the all-time greats -- a group Verlander is striving to become part of -- are remarkably consistent. It's possible that Verlander's 2011-12 peak will prove to be that, the relatively short moment in time when Verlander's stuff and pitching maturity matched up together.
The positives in looking ahead to 2014, however, are this: Verlander's strikeout rate was still excellent, and his arsenal remains ace-quality, even if his fastball velocity has permanently dipped a bit. (His fastball velocity was a little higher at 94.3 mph in the postseason.) Detroit's defense will certainly be improved in 2014, likely with more range at all four infield positions, so that should help his numbers.
The final thing I'd like to point out is fastball location. Check out the four heat maps below.
As you can see, the images are similar -- but not identical. Against right-handers, Verlander threw more fastballs in the middle areas of the plate than in 2011. Against left-handers, he liked to work high and tight or the outside corner in 2011; in 2013, he wasn't throwing as much inside. Now, whether this was related to those mechanical issues or the belief that he couldn't pitch inside as much if he wasn't throwing quite as hard, we don't know. We know the results with his fastball were nowhere near the same:
2011 versus RHB: .221/.282/.389
2013 versus RHB: .294/.358/.491
2011 versus LHB: .209/.299/.336
2013 versus LHB: .278/.374/.405
I'd be optimistic about Verlander having a better season in 2014, and just because of better defense behind him. With improved fastball command, Verlander can once again be a Cy Young contender or winner.