We might as well start this off with a Buster Olney tweet:
Teams asking about Justin Verlander; perception is DET looking for big,big,big return w/out salary offset. Owed $70m for rest of ’17,’18.’19
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 4, 2017
Just from reading that tweet alone, one could infer a few things. One, that the year hasn’t gone very well for the Tigers. That much is true, and the Tigers are only in the playoff race in the way that everyone in the American League is still in the playoff race. The Tigers are closer to the AL basement than they are to a playoff spot. Two, that Justin Verlander is available, and he’s been good enough to be interesting. That much is also true. And three, that a Verlander trade is going to be very challenging to execute. That much is certainly true. Verlander’s is the most fascinating name on the trade market, but as things stand, I don’t know how two sides could come together.
There are things that make this hard that go beyond what we can see in the numbers. There are “soft” variables, so to speak, in that Verlander was drafted by the Tigers, and he’s been with them in the majors since 2005. It’s almost the exact same situation with Felix Hernandez and the Mariners, and Verlander has been a franchise icon. There are complicating factors when it comes to talking about dealing a franchise icon, and I can’t do all of the emotions justice, not being this far removed. Justin Verlander *should* be a Tiger, and he should be a Tiger until he retires, and it’s hard to get past that. No fan would want their team to be in this position.
But organizations do have to look out for themselves, and they have to make decisions for bigger-picture reasons. It’s indicative that the Tigers are willing to listen on Verlander in the first place. They’ve already acknowledged he’s a little old to keep through a rebuild, and a rebuild appears to be looming. Verlander himself would presumably prefer to pitch for a contender. I recognize that there are soft aspects. The most I can speak to is Verlander as a pitcher.
So. Even just thinking about Verlander as a starting pitcher under contract, this is complicated. As Olney tweeted, Verlander’s got another two and a half guaranteed years. The rest of the way in 2017, Verlander’s due about half of $28 million. The following two seasons, he’ll be due $28 million each. There’s a $22-million vesting option for 2020. None of these salaries seem outrageous, given that, last season, Verlander was arguably the best pitcher in his league. He had a remarkable comeback story, and a lot of people feel he should’ve won the Cy Young. The Justin Verlander of 2016 was an ace, a familiar sort of workhorse. The Justin Verlander of 2017 has been a mess.
It’s not that Verlander has been horrible. He’s not the reason why the Tigers find themselves where they are in the standings. But, so far, Verlander has started 17 games. Let’s examine his career in terms of strikeout-to-walk ratio:
What I actually prefer is K-BB%. We don’t have automated plots for that. There are 106 starting pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings in each of the last two seasons. Verlander has had the single biggest K-BB% drop, at -12%. His strikeouts are down, and his walks are at a career high. To make matters worse, behold:
Verlander’s got a career-high hard-hit rate. Out of that same starting-pitcher sample, his hard-hit-rate increase is the fifth-largest. Granted, he’s joined by two other Tigers in the top five, so there could be something else going on, but it’s not a good look. Verlander has suffered in every department — every department, that is, but one.
Just on paper, by the statistics, Verlander looks to be a declining asset. And, hell, he’s 34. He *is* a declining asset, almost certainly. Yet what’s strange is that, if anything, his stuff is stronger. Compared to last year, all of his pitches are faster. You expect aging pitchers to get worse because they’re no longer able to generate the same force. Verlander’s got all of his strength, but his results have dipped substantially, which is not an easy thing to explain.
If I had to guess, I might pinpoint Verlander’s arm action. Here are his average vertical release points, from Brooks Baseball:
Verlander had lower release points in 2016 than he had in 2015, and he was outstanding. Yet his release points have dropped only more, and the numbers have gone in the wrong direction. Verlander has spoken this year about making arm-slot adjustments, so this could even be intentional, but success hasn’t yet followed. Verlander’s throwing similarly to how he used to, but by the player-page numbers, he isn’t recognizable as himself. Things change over five or six years.
What the Tigers have is a prized asset, kind of. Verlander has as much name value as anyone, and it would be tough to top his track record. He’s bounced back from a major performance dip before, and so he’s proven that he can make the adjustments he has to make to continue. There’s no reason, right now, to worry that his stuff is declining. It’s just that, according to how 2017 Verlander has actually thrown, his stuff has declined, in that opposing hitters have been treating him worse. A team on the other side of a Verlander trade needs only to be thinking about what Verlander could and would provide. Ultimately, teams are all results-oriented, and Verlander doesn’t have the results. Not to take a chance on, given that Verlander’s salaries aren’t actually cheap.
In a way, this is reminiscent of the Pirates and Andrew McCutchen over the winter. The Pirates made the difficult decision to make McCutchen available. And there was interest, because McCutchen had the track record of being a star player. But McCutchen was also coming off a very disappointing season, which other teams cared about more than the Pirates did. The Pirates asked for the moon, valuing McCutchen as if he wasn’t possibly in decline. Other teams were hesitant to give up too much in the way of youth for a potential has-been. McCutchen never got traded, and now he’s bounced back at least some of the way. So he’s back on the trade block again. But no agreement came close to being reached in December.
This situation is that situation, except that Verlander might have even less of a chance to provide future surplus value. McCutchen is younger than Verlander, and his 2017 and 2018 salaries combined are about one of Verlander’s individual years. To be worth his cost, Verlander has to be a No. 1. Teams around deadline time love talking about No. 1 starters, but Verlander hasn’t been one of those in a while. Trading teams are likely to be conservative, when it comes to valuing the Justin Verlander of today. The Tigers are going to have a longer memory.
It’s not that anything is impossible. Johnny Cueto had a very disappointing half-year to close out 2015. The Giants still gave him a large free-agent contract, with a two-year opt-out clause. Cueto’s stock didn’t necessarily plummet. And you could look at Zack Greinke — after last season, he seemed almost untradeable, as if his contract were underwater. He’s back now to being an ace, and perhaps he wasn’t given enough benefit of the doubt. Greinke had established himself as a capable front-end starter who could adjust on the fly. Verlander might adjust and it might all click. He doesn’t have to be finished, and this is why teams have been giving the Tigers a call. You can’t just ignore it when a guy like Justin Verlander becomes available to you.
To get a big prospect haul, though, it seems like the Tigers would have to eat a whole lot of money. This is more of an either/or situation; the Tigers could get prospects, or they could get payroll relief. I can’t see the Tigers settling for a Verlander trade where they just send him and his salaries away, and there’s little coming in return. So the Tigers need to be seen receiving a valuable package, but they also want to shed that money. I don’t know what organization out there would meet the demands. I know Verlander has been compared to 1998 Randy Johnson, who flipped an ERA switch after a midseason move, but by the numbers, Johnson and Verlander aren’t comparable. Johnson’s statistical decline was more of a mirage, while Verlander’s strikes me as more worrisome.
There would be one easy solution to this. Skeptical teams wouldn’t need that much convincing that the great Justin Verlander is back. If he rips off a few dominant starts in a row, that changes everything. Then the Tigers *could* behave as if they’re dangling a certain ace. But if that doesn’t happen, I’m not sure how an agreement is reached in the following weeks. There’s just too much of a divide, I have to think, and so I’d place the likelihood on Verlander sticking around where he is, for at least the rest of this year.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.