This past week, amidst the Tigers’ flounders to reach .500 on the season, starting pitcher Justin Verlander pitched his career 2,000th strikeout against the Minnesota Twins. At the age of 33, recently engaged to supermodel Kate Upton, and back on track as the Tigers’ resident ace and stopper, one question remains:
Poll to prove my boyfriend he is wrong.
Is Justin Verlander attractive?
— Jamie Sloan (@Jamieson013) April 6, 2016
For the record, I voted yes in the poll, but that actually isn’t the question at hand. Can the lifetime Detroiter reach the exclusive and elite tally of 3,000 strikeouts?
With his Y2K strikeout last week, JV moved himself to 75th on the all-time strikeout list, and realistically could move up 10 to 15 more spots with another consistent and healthy 2016 season, but there are a few other active pitchers on the list ahead of him; John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Felix Hernandez, Bartolo Colon, and CC Sabathia. All of those pitchers save Hernandez are older than Verlander, meaning he will likely pass them when all is said and done. A few more pitchers are knocking on the door to 2,000 strikeouts; Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke are within 100, James Shields needs 108 and Kershaw the Immortal is only 166 away, which means he’ll have it by Independence Day.
Only 16 pitchers in the history of the game have struck out 3,000 batters, 14 of whom are in the Hall of Fame. Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling are the only two on the outside right now, yet both are trending in the right direction in terms of balloting – in 2016, both their 4th year on the Hall of Fame ballot, both received their highest percentage yet, Clemens at 45.2% and Schilling at 52.3%. To strike out 3,000 batters is as close as you can get to locking in your plaque in Cooperstown, so if you remember this post that I wrote a while ago pondering Verlander’s resume, that all might be considered moot if he does in fact get to 3,000 strikeouts.
There are a number of things that play into striking out batters, but there is no hard and fast rule that makes a pitcher effective other than how he adapts to the game. “Stuff” and velocity are a great place to start, but that only scares hitters to a certain point, and Verlander ran into that a little bit in the past. When he broke onto the scene winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2006, he would go on to lead all Major League pitchers in losses two years later, with a career high ERA of 4.84. That was the same year he lost Ivan Rodriguez as his primary catcher, which is about as good of a game manager as you can get as a young pitcher, but let’s take a look at his pitch usage, too.
This handy-dandy FanGraphs info tells the story wonderfully. In 2006, he relied heavily on three pitches and an average fastball of 95.1 MPH. In 2008, he relied much more heavily on his curveball and paid the price, allowing a career high 108 earned runs, en route to 17 losses. Rather than rely less on his nasty 12-6 curveball, he instead introduced another pitch, a hard, late-breaking slider thrown with relatively similar action to a curveball, but masked by speed and an identical arm angle. Even though he hardly threw it in 2009, only 2.3% of his pitches, he struck out 269 batters, a Major League high that year and still his career best. He enjoyed similar success for the next three to four years, winning a Cy Young, an MVP, and a Pitcher’s Triple Crown in 2011, dabbling not so much with the fastball but more of his offspeed pitches, specifically the changeup.
The changing percentages on all his pitches speak to his adaptability that he is no longer a ‘power pitcher’. His average fastball velocity has dropped nearly 4 MPH since his debut in 2006, he is now averaging 92.1 in 2016. But despite the lower velocity in his fastball, you’ll notice that his offspeed and breaking pitches are nearly right on par with the average velocities across his career. His hard slider is still sliding hard, only .7 MPH below his career average, his changeup is still changing and upping (?), only .2 MPH lower that his average, but his curveball is almost 3 MPH below, a direct relationship to his aging arm speed. His fastball looks slower, but his changeup and slider, his primary strikeout pitches now, are the same, making the difference in speed that much harder to pick up to an opposing batter.
JV has made an excellent living as a pitcher, and he’s setting himself up to be successful as his arm speed withers, as human nature requires. He’s changing his patterns and his tendencies, coming to terms with the fact that he isn’t a 22-year old flamethrower anymore, and it’s showing. His K% so far this season is 25.4%, much higher than his career average of 22.3%, and the highest it’s been since 2011 – his CYA/MVP year.
As with any great feat, a little bit of luck is involved as well. Pitching in the AL Central, most of Verlander’s starts will come against AL Central opponents, whose strikeout patterns vary greatly. Teams like Minnesota (who struck out 10 times against him) and Cleveland strike out more than most teams; Minnesota is 5th in MLB K% with 23.7% and 370 K’s (already) and Cleveland is 11th in K% at 21.9% and 330 K’s. On the other hand, the White Sox don’t strike out much (20.2% is 18th), and the Royals are one of the best contact hitting teams and hardest to strike out (18.9%, 4th best), which makes Verlander’s future starts a grab bag of potential strikeouts; somedays he’ll have 10 like he did against the Twins the other day, and other times he’ll strike out 2 in 5 innings like he did against the Pirates this season. The Tigers have only played 61 of 76 games against AL Central opponents, which will leave lots of opportunities for him to rack up some big totals as the season progresses.
That said, projecting him for the rest of this year and the rest of his career is tricky, because at his current age, he could either Nolan Ryan and strike out 301 batters at age 42, or he could Sandy Koufax and call it quits after 12 seasons. We are roughly a quarter into the 2016 season, and Verlander has struck out 60 batters already, which is good enough for 14th in MLB and 5th in the American League. Multiplying his stats by 4 would give us a crude idea of where he could end up for the 2016 season: 228 innings pitched, 80 walks, 240 strikeouts, and 944 batters faced, all of which would be within his career bests and worsts. It wouldn’t be a particularly good season in terms of runs and hits allowed, but definitely good for his career strikeout totals.
For sake of argument let’s say Verlander ends this year with an even 200 strikeouts, putting him at 2,143, 62nd all time. He would need 857 strikeouts to reach 3,000, which would not be easy considering he will be 34 at the beginning of the 2017 season, but it’s not altogether undoable. His current contract with the Tigers runs through 2019 – he would need to average 285 strikeouts a season to reach 3,000. If he reaches his vesting option to 2020, then he would only need 215 per season.
It’s not likely, but he’s certainly got an outside shot. His injury history dictates that he will be around as long as someone will want him; other than a core muscle surgery and a lengthy triceps injury early last year, Verlander has been a workhorse who has led the league in innings pitched three times. Missing time is one thing, but it’s never been an elbow or shoulder problem, which are immediate red flags for pitchers. He doesn’t have a funky delivery and has stopped eating Taco Bell, which is a golden scenario for longevity in the game of baseball.
Will he get there?
Thanks for reading.