August 28, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Tony Paul

Talking Tigers: Justin Verlander's not having a good year, by any measure

On balls in play, batters are hitting .305 this season against Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

Detroit — Boy, to hear Tigers fans tell the tale on Twitter Tuesday night, you’d think Will Little — granted, as amateur an umpire as there is in the major leagues today — and his cozy strike zone had cost Justin Verlander a perfect game.

No, no, no.

The fact of the matter is this: What we’re seeing is not vintage Verlander, not even close.

And many fans, though, are having a hard time acknowledging this — understandably so, given the two-year magic show the right-hander performed for us all in 2011-12.

Tigers fans, they just don’t want to believe it. So, they’ll point to his win total, 12. Not terrible. Or they’ll make note of his ERA, 3.73. Not far above his career mark. And then they’ll simply say we’re all just spoiled, that nobody could continue living up to the expectations he had set for himself, and that he’s still having a — wait for it — good year.

Good! GOOD? There’s a Red Coat burger in it for you if you go ask Verlander if he’s having a good year.

Hope you have good reflexes.

Yes, sure, he’s had some good starts. A fair amount, actually. He did almost no-hit the Astros. Then again, big whip. So did Texas’ Yu Darvish. Twice.

But Verlander’s also given up eight runs to the Rangers, six to the Twins, and five each to the Indians, Orioles, White Sox and Royals. Then, on Tuesday, the A’s gave him fits — the same A’s team he so brilliantly shut out in the clinching Game 5 of just last October’s AL Division Series.

Boy, that seems so long ago.

Here’s a guy who from Aug. 22, 2010, through July 26, 2012, never once failed to get through six innings. On Tuesday, he didn’t even see the sixth inning — for the seventh time this season, just one shy of his total from 2009-12.

A lot of that’s because his pitch counts are up, and often early — as they were Tuesday, when he needed a career-worst 44 pitches to get through the first inning. Yes, Little’s strike zone wasn’t good. At all. And Verlander had a few of his patented long stares of disbelief into home. Funny, it used to be Verlander’s only communication with umps was when he exited a start, then gave a thumbs-up on his way to the dugout. This year, we’ve seeing him jaw on the mound, between innings, and after his starts. All way too much.

That’s just another sign of his frustration, in a year he doesn’t have his Cy Young stuff.

His command, from my view, has been the biggest issue. His 65 walks already are more than he had all of last year, or the year before. And we’re not even to September yet.

But it’s not just too many balls that are killing him. His strikes aren’t as good, either. He’s catching far more of the plate than he’s used to.

And, in Major League Baseball, word gets around in a hurry. Hitters, they absolutely know they can be just a bit more selective against Verlander. And if they follow the game plan, all too often that leads to getting better pitches to hit — which they’re often spoiling (Verlander has to lead the league in foul balls) or putting in play.

Batters are hitting .257 against him, worse than in 2008, when he was 11-17. And on balls in play, batters are hitting .305. For comparison’s sake, for Max Scherzer, it’s .238.

Verlander’s WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched), a far more telling stat than wins or ERA, is 1.36 — good for 69th in the majors, among qualified pitchers. That ranks exactly fifth in the Tigers starting rotation.

And as for Verlander’s ever-popular Wins Above Replacement (WAR), well depends who you ask. FanGraphs’ rating still likes him bunches, but’s isn’t nearly as enamored. Among pitchers, gives Verlander a 2.9 WAR, tied for 39th. That ranks fourth in the Tigers rotation, ahead of Rick Porcello’s 1.5.

(It’s all led to the obvious question: Where to start Verlander in the playoffs? But, really, that’s nothing but a media-created hubbub. Fans assume Jim Leyland’s loyalty will have Verlander starting Game 1; they’re loony tunes. This isn’t an Opening Day start; this is the playoffs. Today, it’d surely be Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, then Verlander.)

The down year for Verlander, it’s baffling — if not ill-timed, given the five-year extension he signed just before Opening Day that made him the game’s highest-paid pitcher, playing on a contract that could be worth as much as $202 million.

But, this isn’t all that uncommon. Tigers fans have been spoiled by his mastery in 2011, when he won both the MVP and Cy Young awards, and 2012, when he should’ve won the Cy Young (but lost narrowly to David Price). It probably was an unsustainable pace for anybody not named Sandy Koufax. Tom Seaver went 14-2 with a 2.54 ERA in a strike-shortened year for the 1981 Reds; he came back the next season and was 5-13 with a 5.50 ERA. Tim Lincecum won Cy Youngs in 2008 and ’09, but then spent much of last postseason relegated to the bullpen. Roy Halladay was 22-7 in winning the Cy Young in 2003; the following year, he was 8-8 with a 4.20 ERA, though he battled injuries.

At least the Tigers can say with near-certainty he’s feeling fine, given the still-humming velocity — which many of his peers, Felix Hernandez among them, can’t claim. Rather, Verlander is just off — or, more accurately, his typically flawless mechanics are just off.

So, no, Verlander hasn’t been good. He’s been human.

Robinson Cano as a Tiger?

ESPN’s Buster Olney, one of my favorite baseball writers, had an interesting post the other day, examining possible landing spots for second baseman Robinson Cano.

The Yankees second baseman is set to be a free agent this season, and could be looking at a contract of near or in excess of $200 million.

And Olney’s top possible destination: the Tigers.

It opened some eyes locally for sure. It sure caught my attention. Because it didn’t make sense. So I asked Buster, via Twitter, and he explained: You never rule out Mike Ilitch.

Now, you don’t need to tell me this. I’ve already learned my lesson. Last Dec. 12, I wrote a story atop the Detroit News sports cover under the title, “Sanchez likely to leave.” And I truly, truly believed it. Anibal Sanchez was about to get paid serious dollars, given the $147 million contract the Dodgers just gave Zack Greinke.

Well, three days later, I had another story on the cover: “Tigers snare Sanchez.”

Yep, the Tigers outbid the Cubs at the last minute, ponying up an astounding $80 million. It’s simple. I forget to factor in the Ilitch factor. He gets what he wants.

That day, Dec. 15, I told myself I never again would rule out a free agent coming to Detroit while Ilitch still owned the Tigers.

That said, Cano? I just don’t see it.

And here are my two main reasons:

1) The Tigers can get by relatively cheap up the middle, with Jose Iglesias at short and Omar Infante at second, for years to come if they want. Iglesias is under club control through 2018. He’ll make between $2 million and $4 million the next few years. Infante, he’s a free agent at season’s end, and has never made more than $4 million in any of his 12 seasons. He can probably be had for a multi-year deal worth $5 million to $6 million.

Going that route still keeps the Tigers solid, but also allows them to save some spare change, which — along with the expiring contracts of Victor Martinez ($12.5 million a year) and Torii Hunter ($13 million a year) after 2014 — could help them in their bid to keep Max Scherzer, a free agent after 2014, and Miguel Cabrera, a free agent after 2015.

2) Cano recently hired Jay-Z as his agent, in what was believed to be a bid to help boost his off-field profile. If that’s the case, well, while I love my city, Detroit makes little sense, all due respect to Verlander’s upcoming appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Prepping Corey Knebel

The Arizona Fall League participants were announced Tuesday, and there was an interesting name listed from the Tigers system: Right-hander Corey Knebel.

Knebel, along with four other Tigers minor leaguers, will play for the Mesa Solar Sox when the season gets under way Oct. 8.

Now, it’s not overly common to be drafted, then participate in the minor leagues and fall ball in the same season. This is even more rare with pitchers, given that it’s typically already been a long season, and arms are precious commodities to be handled with care.

In the case of Knebel, 21, he was closing for the University of Texas as late as mid-May. The Tigers then took him 39th overall in the June draft, signed him for more than $1.4 million and sent him off to Single A West Michigan, where he’s already appeared in 27 games, throwing 28 innings.

Combined with his Texas season, that’s 68 innings and counting for Knebel.

This is all interesting on a couple fronts.

For starters, there’s some disconnect on whether the Tigers see Knebel as a reliever, as he was all three of his years at Texas, or a starter. David Chadd, the Tigers vice president of scouting, said originally the kid was a starter in the making, but then Knebel, 21, told me the Tigers assured him he’d be in the bullpen — which, by the way, is his strong preference.

Tigers scouting director Scott Pleis explained that to me this way: the organization was to start Knebel off relieving in the minors this year, in part, because it didn’t want to push it with his arm – given his already long season at Texas. Yet, the Tigers apparently are OK pushing it with fall ball. Why is this? I can think of two reasons.

1) The Tigers are slowly building up his stamina in preparation of transitioning him to a full-time starter, probably at Double A, at the start of next season.

2) Or, and this is more likely in my opinion, the Tigers believe Knebel isn’t that far away from making an impact in the major leagues — where, of course, the Tigers have far more immediate issues with the bullpen than in the rotation.

This season at West Michigan, Knebel has flat-out dominated, allowing 12 hits in 28 innings, while striking out 38. His ERA is 0.64. His WHIP is 0.71.

It prompted me to, not along, fire off a text to Whitecaps pitching coach Mike Henneman, the longtime Tigers closer. Highlights of Henneman’s response: Knebel “has the makeup of a legit closer,” “he is definitely on the right track,” and “he is a good one.”