The most fascinating name on the trade market is a 34-year-old pitcher with a 4.54 ERA, the worst walk rate of his career, and a $65 million price tag million through 2019. By age, performance and money, that doesn’t sound like an attractive commodity. But this is Justin Verlander, the Cy Young Award runner-up and league strikeout champion just last year, and owner of a 3.39 ERA in 16 postseason starts.
The Detroit Tigers need such a major re-boot that prospects and financial flexibility are more valuable to them than the next two months and two seasons of a pitcher aging through his mid-30s. The Dodgers, Astros, Cubs and Brewers are among the contending teams scouting Verlander, who has full veto rights over a trade.
All had scouts monitoring his start Monday night in Detroit. They had to like what they saw. Verlander chucked 119 pitches over seven innings, punched out nine batters, hit 98.8 mph and gave up three runs in a no-decision. The crowd at Comerica Park gave him a standing ovation, knowing there is a chance they never again get to see him pitch there in a Tigers uniform.
For four straight seasons the eventual world champion has picked up a pitcher at the trade deadline: the 2013 Red Sox and 2014 Giants both added Jake Peavy, the 2015 Royals acquired Johnny Cueto, and the 2016 Cubs traded for Aroldis Chapman. Is Verlander the next final championship piece?
Here’s the fundamental question teams must decide on whether to give up prospects and elite-pitcher money for Verlander: is he a World Series difference-maker, or is his career about to fall off a cliff? To believe in Verlander is to believe that he is a true outlier.
First, the good news about why Verlander may be a good short-term bet: he is healthy and still has superior arm strength and speed. There are absolutely no red flags with his fastball. Verlander’s average four-seam velocity (95.63) is the highest it has been in seven years. The slugging percentage he has allowed off his fastball is a career-low (.347). That’s a rather amazing data point for a mid-30s power pitcher in the greatest home run environment in baseball history.
In fact, Verlander’s power profile hasn’t changed all that much as pitchers around him throw fewer and fewer fastballs. His fastball percentage has remained steady, falling between 56% and 58%. The life on his heater shows no deterioration. His average spin rate on the pitch this year (2,539) is about what it was last year (2,560) and better than it was in 2015 (2,491), when forearm flyout in his loaded position (getting the baseball too far from his head before his arm came around) required offseason mechanical adjustments.
The problem for Verlander this year is that he has lost consistent feel for his secondary pitches. Over the past few seasons he has worked so hard at throwing a slider/cutter hybrid that he has lost his changeup and curveball. He has allowed career-worst slugging percentages on his change and curve this year.
It would be easy to imagine Verlander responding to a trade and pennant race by pitching well the last two months of the season, particularly if he escapes the American League for the National League with its built-in dead spot in the lineup where the pitcher hits. When you examine only how they fare against non-pitchers, there’s virtually no difference between Jake Arrieta (.257/.327/.443) and Verlander (.257/.338/.411) this year.
Moreover, a team interested in acquiring Verlander would be wise to give him more rest between starts. Verlander loves pitching on the fifth day and keeping to routine, but he might be better making a concession to age, based on this extreme split:
Days of rest
Five or more days
But the greatest risk with Verlander is that you’re investing prospects and a ton of money into not just the rest of this year, but also his age-35 and -36 seasons. There has been some talk that the Tigers might pick up the $9.3 million or so due him for the rest of this year. Okay, but that still leaves a $56 million bill over the next two years, and for what kind of pitcher?
Look around baseball right now. Find me a qualified, conventional pitcher that old who is even league average.
For the first time in 47 years, no conventional pitcher (that excludes knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey) 35 or older has thrown enough qualified innings with an adjusted OPS of at least 100. Fifteen years ago there were a dozen. Older aces, or even near-aces, are extinct.
Maybe Verlander is an exception. To find out, let’s examine what happened to pitchers like Verlander with his age and workload.
Before the year is out, Verlander will reach 2,500 career innings. He will become the 22nd pitcher in the past 30 years to reach 2,500 innings through his age 34 season. Here’s what happened to the previous 21 pitchers in their age-35 and -36 seasons:
Remained Effective (7):CC Sabathia, Mark Buehrle, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Dennis Eckersley, Jack Morris.
Average (3):Livan Hernandez, Mike Mussina, Frank Tanana.
Fell off a cliff (11):Roy Halladay, Javier Vazquez, Pedro Martinez, Andy Benes, Dwight Gooden, Fernando Valenzuela, Mark Langston, Dave Stieb, Bob Welch, Mike Moore, Frank Viola.
This appears helpful, showing Verlander is more likely to fall off a cliff than remain effective (defined here as posting a OPS+ of at least 100). But it’s not so helpful to compare Verlander to Eckersley, who by then was a closer, or soft-tossers such as Glavine and Tanana.
So consider only Verlander’s best comps: power pitchers who piled up 2,500 innings through age 34. Only three power pitchers in the past 30 years held up well for the next two seasons: Sabathia, who lost his four-seam fastball and successfully has transitioned into a sinker/cutter pitcher; Clemens, who according to his trainer, Brian McNamee, turned to steroids at that age, and Morris, who is left as the one true best-case comp for Verlander over the past three decades.
Through age 34, Morris was 183–132 with a 3.66 ERA. (Verlander is 178–113 with a 3.52 ERA.) Over the next two years, 1990–91, Morris went 33-30 with a 3.97 ERA, never missed a start and threw more than 500 innings, including 36.1 for the Twins in their 1991 World Series run. Morris was the World Series MVP, the epitome of a championship difference-maker.
Scouting Verlander today is easy. He can help a contender. He can start one of the first three games of a postseason series for every contender. He would be particularly effective for a National League team that can provide him often with an extra day of rest between starts. That makes the Los Angeles Dodgers the perfect fit for Verlander, who already owns a home in Southern California. The back injury to Clayton Kershaw—he will miss four to six weeks, and then what?—makes the fit more likely.
Here’s the catch: being on the hook for two more seasons of Verlander at a price tag of $56 million is a scary proposition. It’s as scary as what happened to Halladay.
Through his age 34 season, Halladay had a very similar career and workload (188–92, 3.23, 2,531 IP) as Verlander (178–113, 3.52, 2,456). Halladay was the Cy Young Award runner-up at 34. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball, and a power pitcher at that.
And then, all of a sudden, his arm simply gave out. Over his age-35 and -36 seasons, Halladay was 15-13 with a 5.15 ERA and only 218.1 innings pitched. He was done. He fell off the cliff at 35.
The bottom line is Verlander is the right risk for the right team—a team pointed at winning the World Series this year, not just making the playoffs, and not considering a multi-year “window” to win it all. He’s the best fit for a team that’s all in right now. He’s the best fit for the Los Angeles Dodgers.