I’m a Tigers fan, and what I am seeing out of Justin Verlander this year is breaking my heart. I always have considered him as the re-incarnation of Nolan Ryan, but this year has shed some major doubt on his future.
I wanted to try and assess if any of the great pitchers have ever had a terrible season in what would usually be considered the prime of their career (Verlander is 31 y/o). Disclaimer: I started this search a few weeks ago when his WAR was 0.4 and it has slide up to 1.0 since then, probably making this irrelevant soon.
I did 2 season searches on baseball-reference play index.
- From 1969 (pitching rules changes) to now, List of pitchers who had ever been an all-star (targeting pitching greats), qualified for the ERA title (to help eliminate injury seasons), < 35 years old (so I don’t grab all the end of career years + half of Jamie Moyer’s career), WAR < or = to 1.0. n = 291 results
- From 1969 to now, list of pitchers who have ever been all-stars, with 60% of appearances as starts (to eliminate relievers), and career WAR > 24 (not a super high bar). n = 122 results (ending with Mike Scott)
Verlander ends up 57 on the list of Career War. By comparing the two lists, I was able to find players with higher career WAR than Verlander who had mid-career seasons with ≤ 1.0 WAR.
In the TOP 25 of career war since 1969, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz had years of < 1.0 before they were 35 y/o. However,
- Tom Glavine was 22 and 23 in the seasons where he had a WAR, so he’s not exactly what I was looking for.
- John Smoltz had a WAR of 0.9 in 1994 when he was 27 y/o. This was the strike shortened season and he only pitched 134 innings.
In the next flight of pitcher WAR (26-57), the list gets much longer, but the pitchers get less “great”. Frank Tanana, Dave Steib, CC Sabathia, Jerry Koosman, Jamie Moyer, Dennis Martinez, Steve Rogers, Vida Blue, Jack Morris, Bob Welch, Cliff Lee, Javier Vasquez. Only Dave Stieb, CC Sabathia, Dennis Martinez, Jerry Koosman and Vida Blue really had their ≤ 1.0 WAR year mid-career.
- Dave Stieb pitched 205 innings in 1986 at age 28 and had a WAR of 0.0. In the 6 years prior he had a cumulative WAR 38.8 (6.5 WAR/yr). In the 4 years after, he had a cumulative WAR of 15.5 (3.9 WAR/yr)
- CC Sabathia fell off in 2013 at age 32 and hasn’t returned to prominence.
- After accumulating 17.4 WAR between 1968-1971, Jerry Koosman had a WAR of 0.2 in 1972 at the age of 29. He rebounded well after that year, and accumulated another 32 WAR over the following 8 years.
- Dennis Martinez makes the list at age 23 and 32, but the weird thing is… he wasn’t really good until age 33… 39.4 of his 49.5 career WAR is after age 33.
- Vida Blue had a WAR of -0.9 in 1979 at age 29 despite throwing 234 innings. He recovered with a WAR of 5.0, 2.9 and 2.7 in the following 3 years before a replacement level final 3 years of his long career.
In summary, no ‘elite’, top-25 WAR pitchers had ≤ 1.0 WAR mid-career seasons. Even in the list of pitchers I would probably deem as ‘great but not elite’, only had a handful had mid-career ≤ 1.0 WAR seasons. None of this gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling about Verlander's prospects for a bounce back to dominance.