Baseball Expert Tony DeMarco has been covering the big leagues since 1987, and been casting Hall of Fame ballots for the last 14 years. He answers questions weekly here:
Q. Is there any way Justin Verlander can continue the amazing level of success he had last season? He has to come back a bit, doesn't he?
— D. Johnson, Detroit
A. We're talking about the best pitcher in the game, in the prime of his career at age 29. So, his amazing performance level likely will continue this season.
Remember that Verlander's talent always has been evident, as he was the second overall pick out of Old Dominion in 2004 — right behind bust Matt Bush (oops, Padres), and right in front of Philip Humber, who just threw a perfect game.
And Verlander has mastered command of his mid-to-upper-90s fastball, breaking ball, changeup repertoire, and has the durability to go deep into games — although pushing him to 131 pitches, as Jim Leyland did in a 3-2 complete-game win April 16, can't happen often.
Through four starts, Verlander has picked up where he left off in 2011, but don't expect him to finish 24-5 again. That's abnormal, even for the game's top pitcher. It takes a combination of factors — some out of Verlander's control, such as run support and bullpen performance — to compile that kind of record in 34 starts.
In 2011, Verlander lowered his ERA by almost a run from 2009 and 2010 levels — mostly by significantly lowering his hits allowed and slightly cutting down his walks allowed per nine innings. (Surprisingly, his home runs allowed ratio was higher than in 2010, while his strikeouts-per-nine innings declined.)
Going into his May 7 no-hitter against Toronto, Verlander was only 2-3 with a 3.75 ERA. And going into a May 29 start, he was 4-3 with four no-decisions and a 3.42 ERA.
But from that point on, he earned a decision in 22 consecutive starts from May 29 to Sept. 18 — very unusual, but mostly because he pitched at least seven innings in all but two of those starts. He also had a closer behind him in Jose Valverde who didn't blow a save all last season, and that's already off the board in 2012.
Verlander received 4.73 runs of support last season from the Tigers' offense, which should be as potent this season, although it hasn't been so far, partly becase of cold weather. In Verlander's first four starts, he's 2-1 with a no-decision despite a 1.72 ERA, as he has received only 11 runs of support.
As for work-load concerns, Verlander never threw fewer than 105 pitches in a start last season. averaged 116 per start, and exceeded 125 on five occasions, with a high of 132 on May 29. So his tolerance range is well-established.
In the interest of long-range protection, you could see his innings and pitch counts limited a bit, especially when games are lopsided. But there's no health issue, or any other reason standing in the way of more Cy Young Award-type success again this season.
Q. What's wrong with the Royals? I thought they were going to be better than this.
— Jay L., New York
A. Count me among those who forecasted a winning season, so I never expected this kind of start. The Royals have lost 11 straight games heading into Tuesday night's game at Cleveland, and the Royals are 0-10 at home, which hasn't happened since the 1994 Chicago Cubs.
What's wrong? Most everything. Expectations for improvement were based on a core of young position players who led the Royals to sixth place in the AL in runs scored last season. Projecting improvement was reasonable, given the ages and career arcs of Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, etc. But through their first 16 games, the Royals rank 13th in the AL in runs.
The loss of Melky Cabrera couldn't possibly make that much difference. No, this is one of those team-wide funks that's hard to explain. Perhaps getting on the road will do them some good.
Injuries also have been damaging, and teams with limited payrolls can't afford to spend for replacements. It started with emerging young catcher Salvador Perez, who was lost to a knee injury in spring training — a blow because of his ability to control games defensively.
The loss of closer Joakim Soria to Tommy John surgery was another blow. But considering the Royals had one of the better back ends of the bullpen in 2011, and signed Jonathan Broxton, who had a strong spring coming off surgery, the feeling was Soria's loss might not be that severe.
But that hasn't been the case, as Greg Holland — an underrated but dominant setup man in 2011 — also has landed on the disabled list after a few shaky outings. That's too many losses in a key area.
The rotation figured to be weak, and while Bruce Chen and Danny Duffy have pitched well with little to show in terms of victories, Jonathan Sanchez and Luis Mendoza have 6-plus ERAs after three starts apiece.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Q. How long can the Orioles stay in AL East contention?
— Gracie Parks, Baltimore
A. Most likely, not much longer. And I say that primarily because of the rest of the AL East —the game's toughest division.
MLB may take steps to create more schedule balance in the near future, but for now, the Orioles are in one of game's toughest spots, playing so many games against teams that finish with better-than-.500 records.
The Orioles led the majors in 2011 with 103 such games — just more than double the amount played by the Tigers in the weak AL Central — an indisputably unfair arrangement.
But you have to like some of the things going on in Baltimore, led by the way Buck Showalter gets his team to — and it's tough to avoid a cliche here — play hard, execute and never quit. Just ask the Red Sox, whom the Orioles knocked out of the wild-card spot in last season's final regular-season series.
The Orioles will go as far as their young starting pitchers can take them, and the results have been a mixed bag. There is hope for Jake Arrieta's development, extremely talented Zach Britton is trying to bounce back from injury, but Brian Matusz's struggles continue.
What happens with Adam Jones also will be a key near-term indicator. If they can't sign him and deal him for prospects rather than lose him in free agency, it likely will signal another season or two of trying to build from within. Losing his production and defense obviously will hurt.
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