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What’s behind Justin Verlander’s struggles?

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The Tigers’ ace has been mostly mediocre in 2017.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There are few pitchers in MLB today who boast as decorated a resume as Justin Verlander. With the exception of a certain lefty in Los Angeles, one could argue that no hurler in the game is as a accomplished as Verlander. Yet the first two-plus months of the 2017 season have not been particularly kind to him, prompting questions of whether this could be the beginning of a decline to his career.

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the American League’s Central Division, rest assured that it is a complete mess. No team has had a real hot streak yet, which means the opportunity is there for some club to run away from everyone else. If Detroit hopes to be that team, it will need Verlander to rediscover what’s made him such a force.

In 2016, the Tigers’ ace bounced back from three straight mediocre (by his standards) seasons to put together the best K rate of his career and his lowest ERA and highest fWAR since 2012. It was good for a runner-up finish to Rick Porcello in AL Cy Young voting and seemed to indicate that Verlander still had plenty left in the tank.

But 2017 has been a different story. His K rate has dropped from over 28 percent to just north of 21 percent, and his 10.7 percent walk rate is the highest of his pro tenure. Verlander’s FIP, xFIP, WHIP, opponent OPS, and hard contact percentage would all be the worst marks he’s posted in a full season as well.

Verlander is now six years removed from his MVP and Cy Young-winning 2011 season, and at the age of 34, has logged over 2,400 innings in his big league career. Yet his average fastball velocity through his first 13 starts in 2017 comes in at 95 mph, good for ninth in all of MLB, so his struggles this year do not appear to be a matter of a power pitcher losing his heat.

Much has been made of the possibility of Verlander tipping his pitches, a theory he does not put much stock in.

What the right-hander has indicated he suspects is that opposing teams are stealing signs. After getting roughed up in an April start against Cleveland, one in which catcher James McCann used multiple signals to call the game regardless of baserunners, Verlander said, "I guess when you go to multiple signs with nobody on, you're just saying, 'Hey, it's a little fishy.'"

Is it possible some dastardly plot is actually behind Verlander’s struggles? A look at the data suggests that likely is not the case, but rather that his command has not been as sharp and hitters have adjusted. Overall, Verlander is throwing fewer strikes and opposing batters are swinging less often at balls outside the zone as compared to a season ago.

Also of note is that batters are whiffing less often, making contact at a higher rate on balls both outside and inside the zone, and when they make contact, they’re hitting the ball harder.

This graphic depicts isolated power against Verlander in 2016:

By contrast, here is the plot thus far in 2017:

Hitters are swinging less at pitches outside the zone from Verlander, forcing him to bring the ball into the strike zone. And when he does, those pitches are being hit harder this season than they were in 2016. Verlander’s hard contact rate has risen to more than 36 percent, an increase over last season of more than seven percentage points. The soft contact rate has fallen as a result, while the line drive percentage has increased.

Perhaps the cause of Verlander’s somewhat slow start is closer to what Indians manager Terry Francona said after that April ballgame and the accusations of sign stealing: "Usually, if you do what you're supposed to — like, Verlander left some pitches up — if he doesn't do that, we're probably not having this conversation."

All pitchers go through rough patches, even those who have experienced such lofty success as Verlander. Barring any other injury scares, he still has about 20 starts to look forward to this season, giving him plenty of time to regain his form. If Detroit hopes to claw its way into the postseason, though, Verlander will need to start doing so sooner rather than later.


All data current through Sunday, June 11th.

Ben Martens is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @wbennomartens.