Originally posted on Fox Sports Detroit  |  Last updated 6/24/13
There are as many theories about what's wrong with Justin Verlander as there are Tigers fans. Has he been spoiled by his huge contract? Is he somehow distracted by whatever (if anything) happened with Kate Upton? Is he pitching through an injury? Did Taco Bell change their recipe? Has he been done in by Detroit's defense? Or, maybe, has he just been incredibly unlucky this year. There's one person who would hopefully know, but he's just as confused as everyone. "You can't really put into words what I'm looking for," Verlander said after struggling through five innings on Sunday. "That's a click, a rhythm, a feel. When I get that, I know I can repeat my pitches and do my job. That's what I'm trying to find, and I'm not there yet." Verlander has been looking for quite a while. After an outstanding April -- the first of his career -- he's posted a 6.04 ERA in his last nine starts. In five of those games, he hasn't gotten through six innings, something he used to do like clockwork. "I'm frustrated with myself, obviously," he said. "But there's no point in looking back at what has happened and saying 'what the ?' You just constantly look forward. You have to in sports. No one is at their peak forever, but I know I'll get back there. I will. Like I said, it's just about finding that click." This has happened to Verlander before, and it almost ruined his career. In 2008, a 25-year-old Verlander suffered from the same type of mechanical problems, and he let it drive him to distraction. The result was an 11-17 season, a 4.84 ERA and a concern that the 2006 Rookie of the Year was going to be another short-term Tigers wonder. It didn't last -- Verlander was an All-Star again in 2009 and finished third in the Cy Young voting -- but that season taught him some important lessons that he's using now. "That experience helps me," he said. "I've matured a lot since then. If you took what's happening now, and put it on me back then, you get what happened in 2008. On a day like today, I would have given up seven or eight runs and we would have lost. Today, I kept us in the game, and we were able to come back and win. That's a big difference, maturity-wise. "I haven't been pitching the way I want, obviously. But I'm able to keep a level head. I kept them from a big inning, and that helped." Verlander is quick to dismiss most of the fan and media theories. He says he's not hurt. Taco Bell is fine. He didn't mention Ms. Upton -- and no one asked -- but he certainly wasn't having any of the idea that the money has softened him. "I block that out, even if you like to bring it up," he said. "This is my job. I'm paid to go out there and pitch, whether I'm making one cent or 500 million dollars. Regardless of which it is, I'm going to do whatever I can to be at my best." So what is it? He knows there's something wrong with his fastball -- he's even finally acknowledging that the radar gun isn't lying. The only starter who could regularly hit 100 mph, even after throwing 120 pitches, is now rarely getting close to that number. His fastball, which averaged 95 mph during his all-conquering 2011 season, is now down to 92.6. At times, the PITCHfx system that plots each pitch on MLB.com's play-by-play has been unable to tell the difference between his fastball and his changeup -- a problem that Verlander never has when things are going well. "The stuff is there, so I know I can get it back," he said. "But right now, I haven't been able to repeat my delivery, which means I can't execute my fastball. The velocity is part of that, and so is the location. It all comes hand-in-hand." In 2007, when Verlander no-hit Milwaukee, he was a three-pitch pitcher. He had the devastating fastball, an inconsistent curveball that could be un-hittable at times -- just ask the Brewers -- and a pretty good changeup. All three pitches worked, but his biggest weapon was still speed. That was at age 24, and he's now a totally different pitcher. When he got off to a dominating start this year -- he had a 1.55 ERA after nearly no-hitting Houston on May 5 -- opponents and managers alike raved about how hard it was to face someone with four outstanding pitches, all of which he could throw for strikes in any count. At that point, the fastball had life, the curveball was freezing hitters, the changeup was a weapon and the slider that he started throwing after the problems of 2008 had become another arrow in his quiver. The amazing thing is that most of that is still true. Verlander is striking out 10.21 batters per nine innings, the highest of his career, and he's giving up fewer homers than he did in each of the last two seasons. He's giving up a few more line drives -- about one a game -- but advanced pitching stats actually show him producing at about the same level as he has since 2009. There's one enormous difference in the numbers, though, and the explanation for it might be the answer to the problem. Two years ago, Verlander's opponents hit .236 on balls in play -- anything where he relies on his defense to make a play. That's a very low average, especially on a team not known for its defensive prowess, and it showed that, as good as he was in 2011, there was probably a little bit of luck involved in a 24-5 record. Last season, even as his pitching made him a candidate for another Cy Young Award, opponents hit .273 on balls in play. That's close to his career average of .287, and his results crept to 17-8 and second place in the voting behind David Price. This season? Opponents are hitting a staggering .347 on balls in play, including .382 in the current nine-game slump. The major-league average is about .300, and high-strikeout pitchers like Verlander can usually get it a little lower than that. That means that two balls per game are dropping for hits when they would normally be outs. Those hits -- bloopers, flares off the end of the bat or 96-hoppers that get just past an infielder -- bring in runs, extend innings and, worst of all, raise Verlander's pitch count. He has never blamed his defense, nor does he complain about luck. There's no question that his fastball isn't quite what it should be, and that he's been having trouble getting into a sustainable rhythm. The other parts do exist, though. Austin Jackson spent time on the disabled list during Verlander's slump, Torii Hunter has lost a step in right, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez are not good first basemen, and defensive specialist Alex Avila has been missing because of his offensive problems and injuries. Just look at Sunday's game against Boston. Verlander didn't have his best stuff, but Omar Infante threw away a double-play ball and there were grounders that his infielders should have been able to stop. That hurt Verlander's ability to get out of innings, while it drove his pitch count through the roof. As for luck, while, Verlander left after five innings. In the sixth, with Drew Smyly on the mound, Jhonny Peralta made a fine barehanded pickup-and-throw that would have made all the highlight shows if it hadn't come 30 seconds after Victor Martinez's spectacular diving stop and blind flip to retire speedy Jacoby Ellsbury. When your teammates start making highlight-reel plays the moment you leave the game, especially when one of them is a play-of-the-year candidate by the defensively limited Martinez, there's definitely some bad luck on your side. Verlander isn't going to be an All-Star this season, but he knows that click is out there. If he finds it, and his luck gets back to normal, he's going to be a major force in the second half of this season.
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