Near no-hitter shows Justin Verlander can still dominate, but for how long?
Justin Verlander was unable to secure his third career no-hitter on Wednesday night, succumbing to a ninth-inning chalk shot double by the Angels' Chris Iannetta, but his one-hit shutout provided the uncharacteristically downtrodden Tigers with both a season highlight and a hopeful note for the future. Finally, the 32-year-old righty appears to have rediscovered his dominant form.
Pitching in front of 31,938 fans urging him on at Comerica Park, Verlander held Los Angeles hitless through the first eight innings as Detroit opened a 5-0 lead via homers by Nick Castellanos, Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez. He entered the ninth having whiffed eight. Only walks by Kaleb Cowart in the third inning and David Murphy in the eighth marred his line; and both were erased by double plays on the next batter, so he had only faced the minimum 24 hitters. With the 7-8-9 hitters looming for the Angels (Iannetta, Cowart and Ryan Jackson), the setting seemed perfect. His pitch count coming into the frame was an even 100, he hadn't needed more than 16 pitches in a single inning, and he was still touching 98 mph with his four-seamer.
Alas, Verlander threw a 2-2 fastball to Iannetta that was 97 mph but caught too much of the plate. Iannetta hooked it down the leftfield line—right on the line, actually—for a double, ending Verlander's bid for history.
Had Verlander, who set down the next three hitters to secure the win, completed the no-no, he would have become just the sixth pitcher in major league history to throw at least three no-hitters. Bob Feller, Cy Young and 19th century hurler Larry Corcoran each had three, while Sandy Koufax had four and Nolan Ryan seven. Verlander's previous no-hitters came on June 12, 2007, against the Brewers and May 7, 2011, against the Blue Jays. Meanwhile, he has taken a no-hit bid into the seventh inning seven times in the last five seasons, including to the last out in the ninth against the Pirates on May 18, 2012 before it was broken up by Josh Harrison.
It’s the fourth time this season that a no-hitter has been ended in the ninth. The other three: a four-pitcher effort by the Indians against the Astros on April 9 (with one out), the Braves' Shelby Miller against the Marlins on May 17 (with two outs), and the Indians' Carlos Carrasco against the Rays on July 1 (with two outs). Five pitchers have completed no-hitters this year: the Giants' Chris Heston (June 9 against the Mets), the Nationals' Max Scherzer (June 20 against the Pirates), the Phillies' Cole Hamels (July 25 against the Cubs), the Mariners' Hisashi Iwakuma (Aug. 12 against the Orioles) and the Astros' Mike Fiers (Aug. 21 against the Dodgers).
Even without the no-hitter, Verlander did at least provide a lift for a team forced to reckon with the end of its four-year reign atop the AL Central. At 60-66, the Tigers are in danger of their first sub-.500 finish since 2008. Back in July, then club president/general manager Dave Dombrowski made the uncharacteristic decision to shift the team into selling mode, resulting in the trades of David Price to the Blue Jays, Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets and Joakim Soria to the Pirates. While those moves received positive reviews for the quality of prospects they brought in return, the abrupt turnabout led to Dombrowski's dismissal, with longtime assistant GM Al Avila replacing him. Last week, Dombrowski re-emerged as the president of baseball operations for the Red Sox.
Verlander's strong outing also reinforced the notion that he has rediscovered the form that made him a six-time All-Star and perennial Cy Young contender. Coming off a 4.54 ERA, 6.9 strikeouts per nine and 1.1 WAR in 206 inning in 2014—across the board, his worst marks since 2008—he missed Detroit's first 61 games this year due to a triceps strain and didn’t debut until June 13. He managed just two quality starts out of his first six turns, getting tagged for a 6.62 ERA while allowing eight homers and striking out just 22 in 34 innings. Along with Miguel Cabrera's lengthy absence due to a calf strain and the poor performance of every other starter besides Price, that struggle no doubt figured in Dombrowski's decision to punt the season.
Since then, Verlander has turned his game around. It started with an eight-inning, one-run outing against the Red Sox on July 24 and was followed five days later by another eight-inning, one-run effort against the Rays. In his last seven outings, Verlander has turned in a 1.38 ERA, allowing more than two runs in a start just once, with a 49-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just two homers allowed in 52 innings. Overall, he has a 3.45 ERA and 3.75 FIP, numbers that aren't dominant but at least point in the right direction.
Prorated over 200 innings, Verlander's current 1.5 WAR projects to 3.5; at a cost of $28 million, that's $8 million per win, not a great return on investment but not too far above what the cost of a win is likely to be on the free agent market this winter. The problem for the Tigers is that via the five year, $140 million extension he signed in March 2013, the team still owes him $28 million per year over the next four, part of a staggering $480 million-plus worth of long-term commitments to aging players (the 32-year-old Cabrera, 36-year-old DH Victor Martinez, 33-year-old second baseman Ian Kinsler and 31-year-old starter Anibal Sanchez being the others) that Avila will have to work around. While the aforementioned cost of a win is going to continue to rise due to inflation, Verlander is unlikely to prove to be a significant bargain; he hasn't had a season worth more than 4.6 WAR since 2012, when he was making $20 million ($4.3 million per win).
Though Wednesday’s outing showed that he could still dial it up late in the game, his overall velocity isn't likely to rebound significantly, either. Via Brooks Baseball, the monthly average velocities of his four-seamer are slightly higher than they were in the second half of last season, but his season average of 93.5 mph is close enough to last year's mark (93.3 mph) to be within the margin for error when one considers the park-to-park variance in readings. It's still down a full mile per hour from 2013, and more than two mph from his 2011 campaign, when he took home the AL Cy Young and MVP awards.
But even if that velocity isn't returning, one particularly encouraging trend is the recovery of his changeup, which he has historically used about three times as often against lefties (20.8%) than righties (6.8%). From the start of the PITCHf/x era in 2007 through the 2013 season, batters hit just .214 and slugged .315 against the pitch, which accounted for the knockout blow in 14.8% of his strikeouts. Last year, hitters teed off on it, with a .271 average and a .481 slugging percentage; it was the finishing pitch of just 9.8% of his strikeouts. Within the small sample of this year's data, he's back to yielding a .207 average and .241 slugging percentage, though only three of his 62 strikeouts have finished with the pitch.
Verlander has around seven more starts before the end of the season to show how far he’s come back, information that Avila and the rest of the Tigers’ brass can use in planning for 2016 and beyond. It’s probably too much to ask for him to bring home that elusive third no-hitter, but as he showed on Wednesday, he’s still a threat to do so on any given day.