Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander's ERA has improved since the All-Star break. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
A pitcher allowing more than five runs per nine innings doesnít usually elicit the ďaceĒ label, but itís been an unusual kind of year for Justin Verlander, hasnít it?
At one point it would have been laughable to consider Verlander as the second-best starter on his own team, let alone the fifth best. Yet statistically or honestly, thatís where he finds himself now: behind Max Scherzer, David Price, Anibal Sanchez and ó yes ó Rick Porcello.
Thatís why the suggestion has risen that Verlander should sit in the bullpen when the playoffs start in October, while the other starters make up the playoff rotation.
Itís too early for that kind of talk.
We had these very same discussions about Verlander last season, including the question as to whether he should become the teamís ace reliever.
The Oakland Athletics would have appreciated that. Against them he didnít allow a run in 15 innings, including a winning, eight-inning performance on the road in Game 5 of the American League Division Series. He gave up just a solo home run in his lone American League Championship Series start against the Red Sox, giving him a playoff earned-run average of 0.39 for the 2013 postseason.
No one asked what was wrong with Verlander.
Every season is different, of course. Verlander has struggled this one, with an ERA of 4.66, a strikeout rate substantially lower than normal and a walk rate higher than his average.
But as we saw Friday night, itís too early to count Verlander out. He stayed on the mound for eight innings, still throwing in the high-90s as he faced his final batters. Importantly, he didnít offer a free base all night, while allowing just two runs.
Itís just one start, to be sure, and against the Rockies at that, but Verlander is progressing in many areas as the season goes deeper. In the second half his ERA is better at 3.32, and thanks to a decreased walk rate his WHIP is down to a solid 1.20 from 1.46.
OK, so his numbers arenít ace caliber yet, but numbers like those compare favorably to the rest of the Tigersí rotation.
The idea of a postseason super reliever isnít outlandish. Verlanderís issues this season have tended to show up deeper in games. Heís been fine in his first few innings, or for typically the first 75 pitches or so before it all falls apart.
Putting him in the bullpen, as the Giants did with then-struggling former ace Tim Lincecum in 2012, would seem to make good sense then.
The bullpen problems the Tigers have battled all season would be a thing of the past with Verlander available, while the team could still trot out incredibly good starting pitchers every game.
Itís a good problem for manager Brad Ausmus to have, to be sure.
Weíll know more by the end of September. If Verlander continues to struggle past the first few innings, it would be a no-brainer to move him into a playoff bullpen.
But if he continues to pitch like he did against the Rockies, the best place for him is where he can make the biggest impact on a game: the rotation.
Fortunately no decisions have to be made now, so discussions are entirely academic.
Overlooking Verlander in August is easy. I guarantee you no opponents will overlook him in October. No matter what his season stats say, he can still pitch like an ace.
Kurt Mensching is editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at email@example.com.