Is Justin Verlander Back?

After struggling most of this season, Justin Verlander has found his groove at the right time for the Tigers.

Most of the 2014 season has been a lost cause for Detroit starter Justin Verlander.

Among all qualified starters in the American League, his ERA of 4.54 is the sixth-worst. He's given up more runs than any other pitcher in the AL (114), the fourth-most hits (223), and has the fifth-worst opponent's batting average, (.271), helping lead to a WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 1.40 that is tied for fourth-worst in the American League.

In other words, it's been easy to score on Justin Verlander this season.

This has been troubling for the Tigers, as they are on the verge of clinching the AL Central once again. With a rotation led by Max Scherzer and David Price, and Rick Porcello having a very solid season, it's entirely possible the Tigers could relegate Verlander to the number-four spot in the rotation, all but assuring he would not pitch in the American League Division Series.

However, there are some encouraging signs that the old Verlander may be making a return.

1st Half4.884.01129.
2nd Half3.973.2977.
Last 30 Days3.462.6541.

Verlander's first half was one to forget. That 4.88 ERA and 1.46 WHIP were pretty brutal, and his 16.9% strikeout rate was far below his career 22.3%. But as the second half has worn on, he's gotten better, lowering his ERA in the second half to 3.97. Over the last 30 days, it's even lower, to 3.46, and in the month of September, he's been solid with a 3.89 ERA. You'll note his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) in the second half, last 30 days and this month, are all much better than his ERA, which indicates he's still dealing with a bit of bad luck on balls in play.

In his last start, against the White Sox on September 24, Verlander pitched eight innings and gave up just one run on seven hits with six strikeouts and no walks. That followed an outing against the team right behind them in the standings, the Kansas City Royals, in which he went 7.1 innings and gave up one run on seven hits with four strikeouts and no walks.

It appears as if Verlander is starting to hit his stride at just the right time.

Of course, Justin isn't the strikeout pitcher he once was. His 159 Ks are only tied for 17th in the American League this season, a far cry from when he led the AL in strikeouts in 2009, 2011 and 2012. And his bWAR of 1.1 is way worse than the 6.1 he put up in 2011, the 5.5 he had in '12 and even the 2.7 he mustered last year.

But our nERD totals show he's done a decent job at saving his team runs, at least compared to a league average pitcher. His nERD of 1.94 this year is 17th-best among all MLB pitchers - meaning he's given up 1.94 runs a 27-out game less than an average Major Leaguer. That's not far off the 2.28 he put up last year, as well as the 2.74 nERD he's averaged every season since 2006.

His last two games have Tigers fans excited. However, it should be noted that his fastball velocity in his last two contests was exactly what it's been all season, and he didn't vary his pitch selection a whole lot either. It's possible he simply had two decent outings against a weak-hitting Royals team and a White Sox club that has long been out of the pennant race.

And his second half hasn't come without its bumps and bruises, either. He gave up seven runs (six earned) in an outing against Cleveland at the beginning of the month, and has given up four runs or more in four of his last eight outings. So it's important not to get too excited about two great starts in a row.

But it at least seems as though Verlander has nosed ahead of Porcello over the last month.

David Price23639.
Justin Verlander41641.23.462.651.2
Max Scherzer31639.13.433.000.9
Rick Porcello04527.24.882.840.7

In the last 30 days, Verlander has been the superior pitcher, besting him in fWAR (1.2-0.7), FIP (2.65-2.84) and ERA (3.46-4.88). Given Verlander's track record, he's more likely to shut a team down on any given day than Porcello, which is why he should probably be given the Game 3 start in the ALDS, no matter who the Tigers end up playing.

The old Justin Verlander may be gone forever. Hopefully, the Tigers can get a reasonable facsimile as they look for their elusive first World Series title since 1984.