Since 2011, when he won both the American League Cy Young and MVP awards, Justin Verlander has gotten progressively worse. His ERA has risen, his strikeout total has decreased and he has pitched fewer innings each year since then.
All of those factors culminated into a terrible 2014 season.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, his 88 ERA+, which takes the traditional ERA stat and adjusts it according to park factors, was the worst of his career, as was his 9.7 hits allowed per nine innings.
Verlander had core surgery before the 2014 season and, regardless of whether or not that injury was the cause, he hasn't been the same pitcher since.
His velocity has steadily decreased over the past three years and he has been trying to reinvent himself as a pitcher. In his prime, Verlander possessed one of the filthiest curveballs in the league. However, he doesn't throw that power curve as much anymore. He relied on his slider in 2014 more than he has throughout the rest of his career, according to FanGraphs.
Yet, it still appears as though Verlander has what it takes to return to being a dominant starter. He may not be an ace-caliber pitcher like he once was, but he can still be someone who can take the ball every fifth day, work deep into games and give his team a chance to win.
Arguably the biggest factor that Verlander will have to overcome is that he no longer possesses swing-and-miss stuff. In 2014, he recorded a career-low whiff percentage when throwing his fastball and slider, and near career lows with his changeup and curveball, as per Brooks Baseball.
But it's not as though Verlander is refusing to accept that he must improve. He made a concerted effort to bulk up over the offseason and he reported to spring training with 28 extra pounds of muscle on his 6'5" frame.
Going off comments he made to ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, the hope appears to be that the extra muscle will allow him to use his legs more when he pitches. In one of Stark's most recent articles, Verlander outlined the way he felt last year:
I didn't feel weak last year. I didn't feel hurt in my core area. It just translated to [soreness in] my shoulder area. I wasn't using my legs. The power from my legs couldn't really translate through my core. So then I'm trying to create it through my shoulder, which is obviously a downhill slide from there.
From what we have seen so far in spring training, the results have been positive. After Verlander threw live batting practice for the first time last Sunday, manager Brad Ausmus said he definitely noticed a difference.
"That's the best I've seen Ver stuff-wise, off the mound, since I've gotten this job," Ausmus said to Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press. "It was exactly what we wanted. He looked very good today."
However, successful outings in the preseason are not going to outweigh how bad Verlander was last year. He no longer has the arsenal of a dynamic ace, but he can rebound if he changes his pitching philosophy.
It might not be the "macho" thing to do, but Verlander needs to transform into more of a finesse pitcher. He will not be able to strike batters out like he used to with his current velocity, so incorporating more deception into his repertoire might be something for him to ponder.
In the past, Verlander could get away with throwing fastballs in the zone, because he threw too hard and his breaking pitchers were too nasty for the hitters to be able to capitalize when he made a mistake. But now his stuff isn't as overpowering, and if he continues to pitch like his old self he will likely continue to struggle.
B/R's MLB Lead Writer Zachary D. Rymer summed it up nicely in a recent article:
So, in a nutshell: Verlander was throwing way too many hittable fastballs in 2014 and exacerbating matters by throwing way too many hittable secondaries. He was giving hitters every excuse to sit fastball and making it too easy for them to adjust when they didn't get one.
Throwing too many hittable pitches is something that Verlander must change. The Tigers lost Max Scherzer to free agency, so an effective Verlander is vital to the Tigers' chances of winning their fifth consecutive AL Central crown.
It is very hard to bet against someone with such a productive track record like Verlander, but he is making it harder and harder to believe. However, if these spring training reports prove to be accurate, Verlander may very well return to being a terrific pitcher.
But expectations should be made with caution. He is not the same pitcher he once was, but if he changes his pitching style to keep hitters off-balance, he has the potential to be a borderline No. 2 starter.
And with a front end of the rotation consisting of David Price, a healthy Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers may have just enough pitching to keep them in games.