Fantasy Baseball: Yes, Justin Verlander Can Be Your Ace

He should have won the Cy Young last year. He could be a leading candidate again this year, too.

For a little while there, it sure looked like Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander was cooked.

After winning the AL Rookie of the Year in 2006, the AL MVP and Cy Young Awards in 2011, compiling four top-five Cy Young seasons and six All-Star selections, it appeared as if Verlander's stuff had disappeared in 2014. In his age-31 season, the right-hander's fastball had lost three miles-per-hour off its average velocity from three years before, resulting in his highest ERA since 2008 (4.54).

After allowing a league-low 6.2 hits per nine innings in his MVP season, he allowed 9.7 hits per nine with an opponents batting average of .271.

There were worries he was finished. After years of blowing guys away with his explosive fastball, that weapon was no longer available and he didn't seem to have an answer.

It's not an unusual story, the aging pitcher who loses his heat. Many never recover. But Verlander has.

Last season, he finished second in the Cy Young vote to Rick Porcello after putting up a 3.04 ERA in 34 starts (227.2 innings), an AL-best 1.001 WHIP with a league-high 254 strikeouts, averaging 10 strikeouts per nine innings. That was the second-highest total of his career (10.1 in 2009).

He was a beast.

It was a truly remarkable comeback season for Verlander, and he's showing no signs of slowing down this spring.

Verlander did benefit from a little extra juice on his fastball last season compared to the two seasons prior, but he's still not where he used to be in his prime (velocities courtesy of FanGraphs).

Season FB velocity (mph)
2009 95.6
2010 95.4
2011 95.0
2012 94.3
2013 93.3
2014 92.3
2015 92.8
2016 93.5

Through the 2009 season, Verlander threw his fastball anywhere from 62% to 68% of the time. But since then, he's mixed in some of other pitches more and only threw the heater 55% to 58% of the time.

Last year's usage of his fastball was no different than the 2011 season, his best year in the big leagues. He has mixed up his breaking pitches a bit over the last two seasons, though, especially his slider.

Season SL% CH%
2008 0 15.8
2009 2.3 9.9
2010 6.9 14.9
2011 8.4 16.3
2012 11.9 17.3
2013 13.2 16.9
2014 15.1 13.2
2015 16.5 9.2
2016 18.3 8.5

He threw his slider a career high 18.3% of the time in 2016, a massive difference compared to 2008 when he didn't throw a single one. He is also no longer a fastball-changeup guy. In '08, coupled with that devastating heater, he threw his changeup 15.8% of the time. Last year, it was down to 8.5%.

Verlander reinvented himself by featuring his slider a lot more and de-emphasizing the changeup.

He also realized he could no longer simply blow everybody away with his heater. He needed to start doing his homework by reading the scouting reports on opposing hitters and having a plan of attack.

It turns out those things are pretty useful, after all.

So what does that mean for 2017? It means any worries that may have been lingering after 2014 should be erased from your minds.

FantasyPros has Verlander's ADP at 40th overall, making him the 9th starting pitcher being selected. Our numberFire projections have Verlander as the 10th-best pitcher with an nF score of 6.42. We see him putting up an ERA of 3.47 in 205 innings with 15 wins, 209 strikeouts, 56 walks and a WHIP of 1.12.

Now 34 years old, Verlander is still an elite pitcher, and you should have no worries whatsoever about making him the ace of your fantasy baseball team this season.