May 25, 2014 at 7:10 pm

Tony Paul

Tigers' Justin Verlander still searching for way to dominate without overpowering fastball

Time for a few observations on the Tigers as we wait to fire up the grill for Memorial Day -- a day after the Detroit pitching staff was lit up yet again.

What's up with JV?

Justin Verlander is struggling. There’s no two ways around it.

And, quite frankly, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. This happens in baseball. It’s simple anatomy. As hard-throwing pitchers near and then move into their 30s, there is something missing from that arm particularly for pitchers who’ve thrown as much as Verlander, who averaged 220 innings from 2006-13.

Verlander’s fastball is down in velocity, and substantially so over the last couple years.

A few years back, when he was winning the Cy Young and MVP awards, his heater was the best in the game, sitting in the mid-90s -- and able to get up to 99 and 100 pretty much whenever he wanted to, from the first inning through the ninth. According to Fangraphs, he hit 99 mph in 15 starts in 2012.

Now, at age 31, he’s sitting in the lower 90s -- and rarely approaches 95 or 96 anymore. He touched 99 in two starts last year, and this year hasn’t thrown harder than 97, and even that was in just one start.

Fangraphs says his fastball ranges from 91 to 96; that range was 91 to 101 just two years ago.

The result: Far fewer swings and misses, and thus far fewer strikeouts, the bread and butter of Verlander’s game when he was the ace of baseball from 2009-12.

So now it’s up to Verlander to make the adjustments, as so many great pitchers have over the years. Few men throw 100 in their 20s and 40s; there is only one Nolan Ryan, a freak whose hard-core leg regimen kept him chucking blazing fastballs well into retirement.

The good news: Verlander still has a lot going for him, including perhaps the best curveball for a starting pitcher. He also has a plus change-up, so there are tools to work with as he attempts to right the ship -- following three consecutive dud starts, the latest in Sunday’s 12-4 loss to the Rangers.

He found “it” down the stretch last year, and into the postseason. No doubt, he can again.

That said, this is the perfect example why so many major-league teams balk at giving starting pitchers huge-money deals, like the $180 million contract Verlander signed last spring which will pay him $28 million a year every year from 2015-19, and potentially another $22 million in 2020, when he turns 37.

It’s just such a tremendous risk for a ballclub, when the numbers aren’t on the side of long-term success. CC Sabathia is unraveling, with potentially $73 million owed by the Yankees from 2015-17. Johan Santana eventually was a bust with the Mets. Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito, and the list goes on.

And don’t think for a second they’re not sweating in Seattle (Felix Hernandez) and Los Angeles (Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke). Those deals look fine in their infancy. Odds are, at least two of the three won’t look so rosy in a few years or even sooner.

This is exactly why the Tigers are balking at giving the $200 million or so that Max Scherzer is seeking. They’d love to keep him in their rotation for the next five years. He has the most explosive fastball in the game, a dynamite slider, and an improved change-up that perhaps is to credit for making him a true ace.

But even putting aside the threat of injury -- a very real threat for any pitcher, let alone one who throws so violently as Scherzer, 29 -- that high-octane fastball, history says, won’t be in his back pocket forever. And who knows how a pitcher will adapt when he no longer has that lethal weapon.

It’s not that easy. The Tigers are seeing that firsthand, with Justin Verlander.

Damn, that's ugly

The Tigers still have one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball. I think anyone with a hint of brain matter can acknowledge that.

But man, the last week has been absolutely awful for the staff, from top to bottom.

From the series opener in Cleveland through the series ender against Texas in Detroit, seven games in all, the Tigers pitchers allowed 57 runs (54 earned) in 66.1 innings. That’s an ERA of 7.33 during that span, raising the team ERA from 3.13 on May 18 to 3.80 today, an eye-popping jump in late May.

The last time I can remember the Tigers staff having a horrid stretch like this was 2011, when during a six-game stretch from June 28-July 3, the ERA was 8.17, and three times they allowed 11 or more runs.

And that led to the firing of pitching coach Rick Knapp.

For those wondering, no, Tigers current pitching coach Jeff Jones is not in any jeopardy.

A lot of folks mistakenly believe Knapp got the ax for the Tigers pitching woes, but that wasn’t the whole truth. In reality, Knapp, who had spent his entire coaching career in the minor leagues before Jim Leyland hired him ahead of the 2008 season, struggled to adjust to the speed and complicated nuances of the major-league game.

So the Tigers and Knapp parted companies, and replaced him with Jones, 57, a good fit given his many stints with the major leagues, in a variety of roles, under several different managers.

It just so happened the team ERA the rest of the season was 3.67 and the Tigers coasted to their first American League Central championship, winning it by a whopping 15 games.

Jones got some credit, but truth be told, Verlander was having a once-in-a-generation season, Max Scherzer was starting to show signs of the ace he’d become, and Doug Fister proved a brilliant mid-season acquisition by president and GM Dave Dombrowski.

The maturation of Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly, and addition of Anibal Sanchez, has kept the Tigers pitching staff -- particularly the rotation -- among the game’s elite ever since.

That’s not to say Jones doesn’t deserve praise. He has a great, laid-back relationship with all pitchers, and works his rear off. He changed Porcello’s delivery, tweaked Scherzer’s mechanics and pored over so much video last year with Verlander, he’d be the first guy I’d call if I can’t figure out which remote control goes with what.

Sure, the Tigers are scuffling now, in terms of pitching. But there’s too much talent not to turn things around, perhaps as early as Monday in Oakland.

And Jones will have a little bit to do with that turnaround, just like in 2011.

Doesn't get any easier

On this kind of skid, there certainly are more appealing teams to play than the A’s.

The teams start a four-game series at 4:05 p.m. Monday, followed by a weekend three-game set against the Mariners in Seattle, where Lloyd McClendon -- beat out by Brad Ausmus for the Tigers skipper job -- now is managing.

Typically, the Tigers don’t play all that tremendous on the West Coast, at least not during their recent baseball renaissance.

And Oakland is as tough as it comes in the American League nowadays.

Really, it’s remarkable that the A’s continue to be so competitive, with their shoestring budget and two big starting pitchers -- Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin -- out for the season with elbow surgery. Yet, there they are, at 30-20, their .600 winning percentage bested only by the Tigers’ .609 (28-18).

Surprisingly, the A’s are winning as much with offense as pitching. Led by still-underrated Josh Donaldson, plus Brandon Moss, Derek Norris, Yoenis Cespedes and Jed Lowrie, they’re tops in the AL with 248 runs scored. Baby-faced Sonny Gray and Co. also have them in pitching, with just 158 runs allowed.

It should be a fun series, a rematch of the last two AL division series -- both won by Detroit in five games.

Just like the Tigers wanted some revenge in Boston last week, the A’s will want to make a statement against Detroit, as well.

Don’t sleep on that series with the Mariners, though. Seattle is hanging around at .500, with that premier pitching and upgraded offense.

The Tigers will get on track before too long, but their work remains cut out for them over the next week.

Making contributions

Alex Avila had two more walks Sunday, bumping up his on-base percentage .359 -- trailing just Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler on the Tigers.

He also threw out another would-be base stealer, showing off footwork and an arm that have been very impressive this season. On the year, he’s thrown out 42 percent -- a pace 10-percent better than his career best.

Of course, many Tigers fans don’t want to hear it.

In their eyes, Avila, 27, can do no right.

Like, if he cured cancer, some would scoff, “Well, call me when you solve world peace.”

Tigers starter Justin Verlander registered only one strikeout in 5.1 innings pitched while giving up six earned runs on 11 hits and three walks Sunday in the team's 12-4 loss to the Rangers. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News