Commentary

30 Questions: Which Justin Verlander will show up?

Updated: March 17, 2009, 3:54 PM ET
By Jason Grey | ESPN.com

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

Was Justin Verlander's disappointing 2008 an aberration or a sign of things to come?

In the old days of the Walt Disney Studio, filmmakers had a specific method for casting actors in their live-action movies. They would get a previously bankable star coming off of a flop so that they could obtain his or her services at a cheaper price.

Justin Verlander
Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMIJustin Verlander is using spring training to correct some mechanical flaws that plagued his 2008 campaign.
Sensing the parallel to Justin Verlander?

Fantasy drafts are all about finding value, and there are signs that Verlander could provide just that this season, especially as there will be some owners who are gun-shy about taking the plunge on the Tigers right-hander again after his ERA rose more than a run to 4.84 last season.

Although part of it was some poor luck -- his peripheral numbers indicated he was pitching more to a level of an ERA in the low 4s -- mechanical issues plagued Verlander all season long.

At the beginning of the season, Verlander's front side was flying open consistently; he couldn't find his release point and couldn't repeat his delivery. Predictably, his command and control suffered, and it also took a little juice off of his fastball. For much of the season, Verlander's velocity was down 1-2 mph from his 2006-'07 numbers.

"I created some bad habits. There was a consistent battle to get [velocity and strength] back," Verlander told the Detroit News. "It was an uphill battle to recreate my mechanics."

After a rough start to the season, Verlander seemed to get dialed in again. He had a 12-start stretch from May to July in which he posted a 2.53 ERA. However, he fell apart down the stretch, with a "dead arm" period supposedly part of the issue.

More on the Tigers rotation

Jayson Stark looks at the ways the Tigers are trying to turn around their pitching staff that struggled in 2008. Story

Exit Tigers pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, and enter the well-regarded Rick Knapp from the Twins' system. Knapp has Verlander working with a tweaked delivery this spring to help keep his front side closed.

Part of it entails keeping Verlander's hands away from his head more, in order to free up his arm and be more balanced at the finish of his delivery, as well as how his plant leg works at the end so it's not so stiff. A scout who has watched him says his arm slot is also a touch lower.

If nothing else, should the altered mechanics allow Verlander to regain his effectiveness while pitching from the stretch, he'll get some bounce-back in his numbers. Batters slugged 125 points higher against him with runners on last year, which was an aberration compared to his previous two seasons, and a big part of the jump his numbers took in the wrong direction.

Even in a down year, Verlander didn't show any heavy platoon splits, and his strikeout rate dropped by less than one batter per nine while his walk rate rose by the same amount. The raw ability is still there to perform as he did in the two seasons prior to 2008.

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Verlander has had some control issues trying to get adjusted to his reworked delivery this spring, going to a lot of three-ball counts even when he hasn't been issuing walks. There have been some encouraging signs, though, and it's about being consistent with the new motion and not falling back into his old mechanics.

"I'm not worried about him at all," manager Jim Leyland told the team's Web site after Verlander's last outing. "It's a project and a process, but I'm not worried about that. We have plenty of time to get all that ironed out."

While we can't expect Verlander to contend for the Cy Young this season, posting an ERA under 4 with a solid WHIP and a lot of strikeouts will do just fine, and he's certainly capable of getting back to that level again.

How did the box office experiment work out for Disney? Apparently, it went well, because it was a method the company kept using. I expect buying Verlander on the cheap (average draft pick 156.6, average auction value $6.70) to work out fairly well for his fantasy owners this season. Last year was not a sign of things to come.

Jason Grey is a graduate of the MLB Scouting Bureau's Scout Development Program and has won two Tout Wars titles, one LABR title and numerous other national "experts" competitions.