Question No. 2: What's wrong with Justin Verlander?
Through May 9, in his first eight starts, Verlander was 4-2 with a 2.67 ERA and everything looked good, even if there were a few warning signs that his domination was starting to slip. Since then, he's completely fallen apart, going a disastrous 2-5 with a 7.83 ERA in seven starts.
He's allowed five earned runs or more six times in those seven starts, the first time that's happened to a Cy Young winner since Gaylord Perry in 1975.
On Monday, the Royals shelled him for 12 hits and seven runs in six innings. After the game, Verlander said he "unequivocally" is not injured. He said he'd boo himself, as well.
How does an elite starter suddenly fall apart like this? Is it a combination of a bad slump and bad luck? Is it as simple as the decline in his fastball velocity? Is he tipping his pitches? First, some numbers since his Cy Young/MVP season of 2011. The numbers don't tell us what's wrong but provide a starting point for examination.
We can see the decline in his average fastball, as well as the decline in his overall percentage of pitches that resulted in strikes (called strikes plus balls in play). We can see that his 2011 season was, in part, fueled by a very low batting average on balls in play, but using wOBA (weighted on-base average), we can see hitters have been increasingly effective against his fastball.
In 2011, batters hit .215/.291/.362 against his fastball, with 88 strikeouts and 48 walks. This year, they're hitting .306/.400/.481 with 31 walks and 20 strikeouts. Look at the decline in strikeout-to-walk ratio. That certainly points to the loss of velocity being a big factor in his struggles. But a lot of pitchers succeed throwing 92-93 mph, of course, so it's not just the decline in velocity that has allowed hitters to start teeing off.
What's interesting is that in 2011, 49.9 percent of his fastballs were strikes; in 2014, 51.4 percent have been strikes. But the swing-and-miss rate has dropped from 17.8 percent to 14.4 percent. In pitching, the line between greatness and mediocrity is slim. A few swings and misses here and there can make a big difference.
In digging deeper into his seven-start slump, right-handers have hit .425 with just one strikeout in the period since May 14. Well, check out his fastball location. For comparison, check out his fastball location in 2011.
Well ... of course he's getting pounded. He's throwing a lot of fastballs down the middle. Maybe that's actually good news for Tigers fans, as that perhaps indicates a mechanical tweak can fix things, or it at least indicates that there is room for Verlander to make adjustments.
I wanted to check one more thing. Let's see what happens when Verlander gets to a two-strike count.
2011: .134/.194/.200, 44.2 pct. K rate
2012: .138/.193/.187, 45.8 pct. K rate
2013: .184/.260/.232, 41.6 pct. K rate
2014: .184/.278/.265, 32.5 pct. K rate
Hmm ... he's still tough to hit, but not as tough. One more list. His two-strike K percentage on his curveball:
2011: 58 percent
2012: 49.3 percent
2013: 51.5 percent
2014: 38.2 percent
This is a concern, as well; he's not putting batters away with the curveball with the same frequency. But maybe that's all related to the fastball; hitters are more likely to sit on the curveball with two strikes, knowing he can't simply blow the fastball by them. In 2011-12, he recorded 165 strikeouts and no walks with his curve. This year, he has 26 strikeouts and three walks. It's still a tough pitch but not the unhittable weapon of recent vintage.
What's it all mean? I don't really know. I mean, it was just last October when Verlander started three games in the postseason, allowed one run and 10 hits in 23 innings while striking out 31.
Verlander says he's not hurt, so we'll take his word for that. He's obviously racked up a ton of innings, averaging 225 innings per season since age 24, plus many more in the playoffs. He's now 31. Maybe it's just a bump in the road, maybe he'll have to make that midcareer adjustment that many fireballers usually have to make, like improving and throwing his changeup more often.
I do know this: The Tigers -- who will be paying Verlander $28 million per season from 2015 through 2019 -- better hope this is just a little slump.