Justin Verlander’s Return to Form

Detroit Tigers LogoI read it every offseason, and so do you: In fantasy baseball, pay for numbers; don’t pay for names. And yet, some players are drafted highly based on name recognition but don’t deliver the goods. In prior seasons we’ve seen players like Joe Mauer and Derek Jeter go sooner than expected based on name recognition alone. In more recent years, Stephen Strasburg is someone who has gone in the first handful of rounds year, but he has yet to have that really great year we want from him. 2015 was a perfect example of this.  He was injured for some of the year, ineffective for other parts of it, and it took a great stretch run to land in the top 30 pitchers or so. That’s behind  John Lackey and Francisco Liriano who you could have landed how many rounds later? 10? 15? More?

It is sound advice to avoid paying a premium for a well-known name (or paying a premium period). But once these maxims become widely accepted, you might find some value by going against the tide every once in a while. If you were a brave soul who took a chance on Ryan Braun last year, more than one fantasy writer said you were a sucker. Yet Braun proved to be a good value even if you chose him in the third round as outperformed his share of first round picks.

Justin Verlander is another household name who has had some recent hard times, but I think it is a mistake to write him out of your 2016 plans. Most of you know Verlander was the best pitcher in baseball from 2009-2012. He had some value in 2013, but the signs of decline were there. His command fell off; he wasn’t hitting 100 mph as often; he was easier to hit, and in 2014 the bottom fell out. Over 206 innings, Verlander offered an unsightly 4.54 ERA, a ghastly 1.40 WHIP, and 159 strikeouts – his lowest total since 2006. While he remained durable up to this point, 2015 began with Verlander on the disabled list with a triceps injury.

When he returned, he did not pitch well. In fact he had a 6.62 ERA after 6 starts. It seemed like Verlander was going to go the way of recent “best pitcher in baseball” title holders like Roy Halladay and Johan Santana. An impressive peak while it lasts, but a big dropoff in performance that brings their time providing positive value to a rapid end.

But then, suddenly, Verlander turned things around. While he was not the Verlander of old in the second half, for fantasy purposes he was pretty close. Almost a strikeout an inning, only a baserunner an inning, and an ERA under 3.0. I’ll say it: he was a low-end fantasy ace.

Now splits are not predictive of anything by themselves, but I do see some reason to believe that Verlander can continue to be a big contributor next year. Whether a pitcher is giving up hard hit balls may tell us if his success is sustainable or if it is simply based on luck. The fine people at baseballsavant.com have tracked how hard every pitcher’s balls are hit. The pitcher with the lightest contact allowed in 2015 at 84.89 mph was Jake Arrieta. He is followed on the leaderboard by Clayton Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel, and Chris Sale. This might be a good stat to look at, am I right? Verlander slots in at 24, putting him in the company of Madison Bumgarner, Michael Wacha, and Jon Lester. These guys are all considered first and second starters for fantasy next year and all will be priced higher than Verlander.

The news gets even better the closer I look. Verlander gives up more flyballs than I like to see in my pitchers. Balls in the air are harder hit and tend to go over the fence. But at 89.65 mph Verlander comes in fifth for giving up the lightest contact on flyballs and line drives. He also came in 16th in shortest home run distance allowed. So his balls in the air are easier to field and don’t go too far. This is a rare case of more flyballs being better.

There is also hope that Verlander’s whiffs can come back after the dip in 2014. His swinging strike percentage was down to 8.8% that year, but last year it climbed back up to 10% which is not vintage Verlander but is a number we can accept. In the second half that number climbed up to 10.8% which can make us smile. And while much has been made of Verlander’s dip in velocity, his average fastball speed is still 92.8 MPH and his command kept getting better as 2015 went on. There is still life in that arm.

Name recognition aside, that arm might come at a reasonable price. In standard leagues, Verlander should be available in the middle rounds and should be well worth that cost. In dynasty leagues, owners might not realize what they have or they might be ready to part with him thinking that this is their last chance to sell. This could be your best chance to buy – buy low that is. You are not getting the best pitcher in baseball anymore, but you are going to get rock solid pitching at a reasonable cost.


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Michael Zakhar

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Michael lives in New Jersey with his beautiful wife Virginia and his adorable son Johnny. We enjoy going to see the Lakewood BlueClaws, who play 20 minutes from home. In addition to baseball, Mike loves reading, music and professional wrestling.