Justin Verlander starting to look mighty mortal to White Sox

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday's offensive outburst had been bubbling since the start of 2013

Gordon Beckham's two-run single in the sixth inning of the White Sox' 8-2 victory over the Detroit Tigers knocked Justin Verlander out of the game.

But let's go grander: That base hit also signaled a sea change in their head-to-head history.

We can certainly say that Beckham's single punished Verlander to a fate he hadn't experienced in years. When he failed to retire the last four batters he faced, he also failed to complete six innings against the White Sox for the first time since 2008. That's 19 consecutive starts without anything resembling an early exit.

Though that's new territory, it accelerates a shift in the "Verlander vs. the Sox" saga since the start of last year. Sox hitters have averaged better than a hit per inning in four of his last five starts, after failing to do so in 12 of the previous 13.

We could say the White Sox have entered a third phase of their relationship with Verlander. It divides pretty cleanly between seasons.

2006-2008: Early Verlander


W L ERA GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO
vs. Sox 2 9 5.90 14 1 0 87 88 63 57 18 31 55

It didn't take long for Verlander to establish himself in Major League Baseball. He won Rookie of the Year and finished seventh in Cy Young voting in 2006, then followed it up with a fifth-place finish in 2007. He took a step back in 2008, which was his only down year to date, but the Sox pretty much pounded him throughout.

2009-2012: Peak Verlander


W L ERA GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO
vs. Sox 12 1 2.23 13 3 0 101 75 27 25 10 20 90

Then the Sox couldn't touch him for four full seasons. Oddly enough, his only loss took place during his Cy Young season of 2011, when Gavin Floyd outpitched him in an 8-2 victory on June 11. Then again, Verlander picked up the win in his five other starts against the Sox, a healthy chunk of his 24 victories overall.

2013-Present: Post-peak Verlander


W L ERA GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO
vs. Sox 1 3 5.51 5 0 0 32.2 44
24 20 4 12 24

Verlander endured a few uncharacteristic rough patches in 2013, but he bounced back to pitch beautifully in September, and downright masterfully in the postseason. Combining his last five starts (two regular season, three postseason), he allowed one run over 35 innings while striking out 53 hitters.

There's a chance he could recover in a similar fashion, making this slump look like a weird clumping of bad games in a successful season. But this is a historically bad stretch for him, at least since he became a star. He's allowed three earned runs or more in six straight starts, which isn't new. But he's allowed five runs in five of those starts, and that is. He's 2-4 with a 7.40 ERA over that time, and opponents are hitting .312/.390/.516. There aren't any incredible peripherals underneath it suggesting horrible luck, either.

Before his start on Wednesday, Sam Miller at Baseball Prospectus took a good look at Verlander and came away with five troubling signs. Here's the first:

1. Verlander’s struggles this year fit the pattern of practically every pitcher before him: He just can’t throw as hard as he used to. At Brooks Baseball, there is a tool that compares some feature of a pitcher’s performance, such as fastball velocity, to the rest of the league using the 20-80 scouting scale. (In scouting scale, 20 is the lowest, 80 is the highest, 50 is average, and each 10-point jump reflects one standard deviation.) This lets us see not just what Verlander’s fastball has done but how it compares to the rest of the fastballs in a population that is throwing harder every year. In 2009, Verlander’s fastball velocity was a 70 -- two standard deviations better than average, and harder than 97.5 percent of the league’s starters. Since then:

2009: 70
2010: 69
2011: 67
2012: 65
2013: 62
2014: 60

He’s now one standard deviation better than average; a sixth of the league’s starters throw harder than him.

Verlander tried to downplay any velocity concerns after the game, but his language underscored it:

"My fastball velocity, I’m not seeing 100, but it’s sitting as high as it ever has." [...]

"Those big innings, need to limit those walks. I start trying to go a little harder, and I end up losing control a little bit."

The thing about Peak Verlander is that he blended incredible heat with otherworldly endurance and rode that combination to stardom. He gradually threw harder as the game moved along, to the point that he'd start hitting triple digits when his pitch count did. That neutralized a hitter's natural advantage of seeing him multiple times in the game, because many saw his best stuff at the end.

Sure enough, if you look at his splits from season to season during his best years, there's really no difference in his splits, whether you're chopping them up by inning, by pitch count, or by times through the order.

If he can't step on the gas the same way -- and if such exertion ruins his command -- then hitters should be perking up. Sure enough, his endurance splits look ... ordinary. After Thursday's start:

Split PA H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
1st PA in G, as SP 126 27 7 0 3 11 16 .241 .312 .384 .696 .255
2nd PA in G, as SP 125 29 6 0 1 13 22 .261 .344 .342 .686 .318
3rd PA in G, as SP 123 25 6 4 3 12 24 .315 .382 .523 .905 .381
4th+ PA in G, as SP 33 8 2 1 0 3 5 .286 .333 .429 .762 .320

A lengthy adjustment period could allow the rest of the AL Central to dare to dream, because the Detroit rotation looks a lot different without a plus(-plus) Verlander at the top and Doug Fister as an imposing fourth. Everybody will likely remain somewhat grounded. Verlander's diminished arsenal is still better than most pitchers' stuff, so he could eventually come up with another recipe that plays to new strengths, or hides new vulnerabilities.

But right now, it doesn't seem like he demoralizes hitters the way he did. Two years ago, blowing a bases-loaded opportunity like the Sox did in the third inning would've been seen as their last best chance to strike. On Wednesday, they merely staged another rally, and actually saw it through.

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