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MLB trade rumors: Justin Verlander is not the answer for the Cubs

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Let’s clear this up right now!

Justin Verlander, admitting defeat
Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Monday, there was a rumor floating around that the Cubs had inquired about Justin Verlander and Alex Avila. Details via Bleacher Report:

According to Jon Morosi of MLB Network, the Cubs have asked about both pitcher Justin Verlander and catcher Alex Avila, although negotiations haven't yet begun.

Morosi also noted the Cubs had scouts in attendance Sunday when Verlander got rocked by the Cleveland Indians, allowing seven earned runs in 3.1 innings.

Let’s put the Avila piece of this aside, for a minute. I’ve got to think Avila was the only thing being scouted here, because Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer shouldn’t be silly enough to want to actually enter the Verlander sweepstakes. The Verlander component should be a quick no for this team for three reasons. There are probably more, these are just the first three that come to mind for me.

Reason the First: Contract

Justin Verlander is owed $28 million per year for the next two years and a vesting option for $22 million in 2020 (it vests if he’s in the top five of Cy Young voting in 2019 and he’d be 37 years old at the time) plus whatever is left of the $28 million he’s owed from the Detroit Tigers this year. In other words, the Cubs would be paying more for Verlander than for Jon Lester. This would be the second highest paying contract on the Cubs after Jason Heyward.

This is a lot of money and while the Cubs may have that money, spending it now trades off with spending it in better ways in the offseason (Micheal Pineda? Yu Darvish? For that matter, Jake Arrieta?) They shouldn’t bog themselves down with a declining pitcher now and hinder their ability to pick up a quality starter in the offseason.

Reason the Second: Age

Justin Verlander is 34 years old. He seems to be in decline this year. He had a great season last year, finishing second in AL Cy Young voting, but he’s no longer close to peak Verlander. Many pitchers on the wrong side of 30 decline pretty rapidly. Verlander is on the wrong side of 30. Fangraphs has a good writeup here, but this is the important part:

— Velocity is a young man’s game. Rather than a parabolic curve of some sort, pitchers generally lose velocity from the beginning. Through age 28, they appear to stay within .5 mph of their peak velocity; but starting at age 29 they have lost about 1 mph with the loss accelerating every year thereafter.

— The loss of velocity is important because we see that pitchers’ abilities to record strikeouts follow a curve similar to the speed of their fastballs. However, the slope of the decline is not as dramatic as the velocity decline. This is perhaps do to a couple factors. First, pitchers are likely to further develop secondary and tertiary pitches as they mature. Many of the best arms in the minors can dominate using mostly their plus-fastball and little in the way of plus- or above-average off-speed stuff. But surviving in the majors requires more than just a plus-fastball — which many pitchers quickly realize. Either they develop additional weapons, or they move on. Second, and somewhat related, pitchers might develop a fastball with additional movement — like a sinker or a cutter — to compensate for the velocity decline. This also could lead to a less steep decline in K/9 and SWG_Strike rate than a pitcher’s velocity decline alone might predict.

Verlander is decidedly on the other side of the velocity game at age 34. That wouldn't be a huge issue if he’d developed strong secondary pitches with a lot of swing and miss stuff, but as we can see from Brooks Baseball, he’s still relying heavily on his four-seam fastball, and while the velocity on that pitch is up a bit, notice that his slider and changeup are almost indistinguishable from a velocity standpoint this year, which is a big difference from last year, which was admittedly an excellent season.

Justin Verlander velocity by pitch type 2016-17
Brooks Baseball

Reason the Third: The Stats

At this point in the season Justin Verlander looks a lot like a pitcher the Cubs are already starting: John Lackey. Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself, we’ll start with ERA, where they look like identical twins in 2017:

Lackey Verlander ERA comparison
Fangraphs

But Sara, ERA is antiquated, let’s look at some more advanced metrics. Alright, BCB, let’s do that. How about we compare their K/9 rate? How many strikeouts do Lackey and Verlander average over 9 innings?

Lackey and Verlander K9 Comparison
Fangraphs

What about walks? I'm glad you asked. Let's take a look at the BB/9 (walk rate over 9 innings) for Lackey and Verlander:

Lackey and Verlander BB9 Comparison
Fangraphs

Whoa there, why yes that blue line is Justin Verlander. That walk rate is terrifying, and yes, what I'm trying to say is that, at least in 2017, Verlander has been John Lackey with a lot more walks.

In fairness to Verlander, there is one metric where he's substantially ahead of Lackey, and it's important for making team to team comparisons for pitchers. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is about league average and much better than Lackey's. This matters because it gives us a window into what a pitcher might do on a different team, see for yourself below:

Lackey and Verlander FIP Comparison
Fangraphs

Conclusion

Justin Verlander is a 34-year-old pitcher who makes more money than Jon Lester and pitches like John Lackey. Even if you think he’s been tipping his pitches and his FIP indicates he might be better than his current numbers indicate, you’d be paying for the waning years of an ace who is currently league average AT BEST and likely substantially worse than that.

This deal would make the Alfonso Soriano deal look good. I’ll pass on Verlander, and invest that money in some of the pitching talent available in the offseason.

Poll

Should the Cubs trade for Justin Verlander?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Yes, unconditionally
    (90 votes)
  • 53%
    No way, not ever!
    (630 votes)
  • 38%
    Depends on the deal
    (455 votes)
1175 votes total Vote Now