Toronto Blue Jays

Tigers in Transition: Justin Verlander and the definition of insanity



This is part 2 in a three part series in which HBT looks at the Detroit Tigers. Yesterday we discussed how a Tigers team which has won the past four AL Central titles finds itself at a crossroads. Today we look at their former ace, Justin Verlander, who finds himself at a crossroads of his own. 

DETROIT — If Justin Verlander was a comic book character he would not be one of those angst-filled, super heroes form 1980s and 1990s gritty reboots. No, he’d be a suave, carefree and charming hero who actually has a lot of fun while defeating all of the bad guys. Sort of like Iron Man with fewer gadgets, only slightly less money but with a better-looking girlfriend and less of a tendency to engage in self-doubt. Really, it’s good to be Justin Verlander.

And, until last year, it was very bad to face Justin Verlander. Since becoming a regular part of the Tigers rotation in 2006 and on through the end of the 2013 season, Verlander was 137-75 with a 3.38 ERA (good for an ERA+ of 128) and 1,664 strikeouts against 540 walks in 1,760.2 innings. He has a Rookie of the Year Award, a Cy Young Award, an MVP and was on the short list for Best Pitcher on the Planet.

Since that time, however, his arc reactor has been on the fritz. In December 2013 Verlander injured some abdominal muscles during offseason conditioning drills. At the time it was thought to be the best possible timing for a bad injury and, following surgery, he was ready for spring training and Opening Day. He made 32 starts last season but, as Verlander told me when I spoke to him on July 4, he did not think he pitched healthy at any time in the 2014 campaign. The results reflected that. He had a 4.52 ERA and saw a sharp reduction in his strikeout rates.

This past spring Verlander was injured again, straining his triceps. The road back from that injury was much longer. He had three MRIs and a chronic buildup of fluid in his arm which kept him from returning until mid-June. Since mid-June his performances have been, in a word, ugly. In six starts he has given up seven runs twice, six runs once and has allowed 39 hits — eight of them homers — while walking 12 in 34 innings. That translates to an ERA of 6.62 and a WHIP of 1.5, all while his strikeout rate has once again dropped and his walk rate has climbed.

source:  Most observers have noted that Verlander’s velocity took a dip in 2014. Which is true. It ticked back up in his first couple of starts this year and has settled back down again to the same rate he had in 2014: 93.1 m.p.h. on his fastballs. But velocity is not the be-all and end-all of pitching. For one, thing, unless your name is Nolan Ryan, a pitcher’s velocity is always going to go down a bit over time. Indeed, Verlander’s has been on a mild decline since it peaked in 2009 and 2010 and, until last year, it wasn’t that big an issue. And it may not be the biggest issue for him now. A pitcher can do well in Major League Baseball with a 93 m.p.h. fastball if he does other things well.

The biggest issue for Verlander is that hitters are putting wood on the ball way more often than they used to and, when they are, they’re hitting the ball hard and far. Specifically, they’re teeing off on fastballs he throws inside the strike zone, making contact on them 87.8% of the time. That’s the highest contact rate for strikes Verlander has posted since he was a rookie. Batters are swinging and missing at his strikes a mere 8.7% of the time, which is his worst rate since 2008. When they make contact and hit the ball in the air, it’s going over the fence 16.3% of the time which, while based on only six starts, is still a dramatic increase over his career numbers in that regard.

Put simply: Verlander is trying to throw heat past guys like he did when he was younger but isn’t getting away with it anymore.

When I spoke to Verlander on July 4, I asked him about that. About how, as a pitcher gets older and loses a couple of ticks on the gun, one has to adjust. I mentioned Tom Seaver to him and how he made adjustments as he got older. Greg Maddux and how, even if he is remembered for his location and control, he came up with a plus fastball and perfected his wizardry as his career wore on. I asked him how, now that he’s not a 97 m.p.h. fireballer who can mow anyone down, what sorts of changes he’s making to his approach. Based on what he told me, it doesn’t sound like he’s making any yet.

Q: Obviously when you’re 18, 20-years-old you feel like you can do anything —

A: [interjecting, with a big, confident smile] I still do!

Q: You still do?

A: Yeah.

Q: OK, but do you have a different mental approach now, though, compared to when you were younger? Do you think ‘OK, I can’t just throw it by these guys now, so I have to change what I’m doing?’ Make them guess a bit more?”

A: In fairness I don’t think I pitched healthy at any point last year, so I’m not going to completely change an approach that has worked for so long based on one season. So I’m just looking to get back in rhythm and know I can pitch before I start making any major adjustments.

At this point it seemed clear to me that Verlander wasn’t going to accept my premise of him being at a point where, maybe, it was time to make adjustments. Which is totally fair. He had forgotten more about pitching in the five minutes we had been talking than I’d ever know in my life so he’s allowed to set the premises here. But I still wanted to know his view of change and aging in the abstract, even if he didn’t think he needed to now. So I gave him a hypothetical:

Q: OK, say it’s five or six years from now and you’ve lost a few ticks. Who would you talk to or who would you look at as an example of how to adjust and be a different pitcher than you were before?

A: I’m good friends with Kenny Rogers still. He started out as a hard-throwing lefty and by the time he got here he was a crafty lefty. I guess I’d call him [laughs].

Q: You plan to be a crafty righty someday?

A: Sure, ha ha ha.

But not yet. On that day, he said that he’s still not back to 100% yet. That starting the season on the DL and not being able to ramp up and get into this normal routine has prevented him from being himself and that he’s not going to panic and seek to make major adjustments until he’s been 100% and it’s still not working.

“I’m not quite back to normal yet,” Verlander said. “I felt like in spring, the last start right when I got hurt, everything was coming together. I was kind of right where I wanted to be. But then I obviously hurt myself. Neither of those things is quite back where it was then. But it’s getting there. I think velocity’s been pretty good. Not excellent, but I think it’s been getting a little bit better every start. And location, you know, you just gotta pitch.  That’s the best way to get your location. My last three innings of my last start were better than my first three. Had to knock the rust off a little bit. Hopefully I’ll just continue to get better and better.”

But he hasn’t gotten better. The day after our conversation, Verlander gave up seven runs on seven hits in five innings. He also gave up a 450-foot foul ball to Edwin Encarnacion that didn’t show up in the box score. One of the homers he gave up was on a fastball right down broadway to Jose Bautista in a hitter’s count. It seemed as if Verlander was channeling his 2009 self and thinking that he’d toss his heater right by one of the best power hitters in the game.

The next time I saw him pitch, this past Sunday against the Orioles, he was touched for seven more runs on eight hits and didn’t make it out of the fourth inning. After Sunday’s game he said he needed to execute better out of the stretch. To “pitch better.” He said there was a “tip your cap” factor in play too, as the Orioles teed off on what he considered to be good pitches. That may be true.

But it’s also true that, from all appearances, Verlander is approaching the game the same way he did back in the day when he used to throw the ball 97 miles per hour. That he is doing the same thing he has been doing for the past two years now, and expecting different results. There’s a word some people have for that. It may be an overused cliche, but the fact is that the Tigers’ former ace needs to find a new way to get guys out because the old ways are not working.

And That Happened: Tuesday’s scores and highlights


Cubs 5, Reds 4: Rookie Kyle Schwarber hit a two-run homer to tie it in the ninth inning and send it to extras and then, in the thirteenth, hit a solo homer to put the Cubs ahead for good. He’s also from Middletown Ohio, just up the road from Great American Ballpark, so this homecoming was really damn sweet. Or at least the second homecoming. A little over a week ago he was the MVP of the Future’s Game in the same park. The future is now for him, however. In his two stints in the bigs this season Schwarber is 16 for his first 39 with three homers, two doubles, a triple and ten driven in.

Mariners 11, Tigers 9: This was . . . bad. After the Tigers battled back from a 5-1 deficit and led 8-6, Neftali Feliz came into the game in the eighth inning and loaded the bases, threw a wild pitch and then, after loading the bases again on an intentional walk, gave up a pinch hit grand slam to Franklin Gutierrez. Worse: as Feliz was busy imploding, there was no one warming in the Tigers bullpen. After the game, Brad Ausmus was asked about it and said he had two guys left: Joakim Soria and Alex Wilson. He said he was saving Soria for the ninth — apparently the idea of him getting a four-out save or even coming in to put out a fire when the game was on the line was anathema to Ausmus — and he didn’t bring in Alex Wilson because, according to Ausmus, he was the only guy left who could go multiple innings and he was being saved for extras.

How one is such a slave to the three-out closer and how one saves another pitcher for extra innings when the game is being lost right in front of his damn eyes in the eighth is an utter mystery to me. As Leo Durocher once said, “you don’t save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it may rain.” The “tomorrow” part of that applies to extra innings too, and “rain” can be considered metaphorical here.

Yankees 3, Orioles 2: Brendan Ryan hasn’t done a heck of a lot this year but he hit a tiebreaking RBI double in the sixth inning of this one. A-Rod had a sac fly and Chase Headley had an RBI double as well as the Yankees put another game between themselves and one of their division rivals.

Mets 7, Nationals 2: The Mets’ lineup finally came through, with pinch hitter Eric Campbell coming through with a big hit with runners on in the seventh and then the rest of the offense pouring it on late with four runs in the ninth. Jacob deGrom struck out eight and picked up his tenth win. He only threw 82 pitches n six innings and probably could’ve gone eight innings or the distance even, but Collins use of Campbell in that key moment of the game is the sort of thing one has to do when the offense has been struggling so much. Worked out nicely.

Rays 1, Phillies 0: Aaron Nola made his MLB debut and it was a nice one, allowing only one run on five hits over six innings, striking out six. Unfortunately for him he got no run support at all as Nathan Karns and five Rays relievers combined to shut out the Phillies. The only run in the game: Karns hitting a homer off of Nola. He is the first AL pitcher to homer in a game in four years.


Braves 4, Dodgers 3: AP wire story headline:


I guess you’re scrappy if you have almost no stuff — only 59 of Alex Wood’s 107 were strikes — and still win anyway. In Johnson’s case you’re scrappy if you spend the last few days demanding to be traded and then drive in a couple on a groundout and a single. Nominate them for the Heart and Hustle Award, I guess.

Cardinals 8, White Sox 5: Matt Holliday’s first homer since early May was a fourth inning grand slam that put the Cardinals up 7-0 and effectively ended the competitive portion of this game. Holliday singled and scored a run too. Prospect Stephen Piscotty made his major league debut for St. Louis as well and had an infield single and struck out twice.

Royals 3, Pirates 1: Jarrod Dyson hit a two-run single in the eighth inning and then came around to score on an Alcides Escobar single. The Pirates threatened in both the eighth and ninth, giving some scares to the usually dominant Wade Davis and Greg Holland, but each shook their way out of jams. This could be a World Series preview. Which would’ve been an insane thing to say just a couple of years ago.

Brewers 8, Indians 1:Matt Garza pitched six shutout innings in his return from the disabled list and Jean Segura — Jean Segura?! — hit a two-run homer. The Indians hit into three double plays.

Astros 8, Red Sox 3: Chris Carter was in an 0-for-20 slump before a single and then later hit a two-run homer. Carlos Correa drove in two. The Red Sox blew a 3-0 lead and have lost six straight.

Rangers 9, Rockies 0: Shin-Soo Choo hit for the cycle in this one, finished off with a leadoff triple in the ninth inning. He doubled in the second inning, homered in the fourth and singled in the fifth and finished with three RBI. Delino DeShields has four hits and fell a homer short of the cycle. Two in one game would’ve been trippy.

Marlins 3, Diamondbacks 0: Mat Latos could be traded before the deadline. If so, he just made himself look more attractive, tossing seven shutout innings and striking out seven. After the game he said “Right now I wear a Marlins uniform so I have to take care of business as a Marlin.” Our condolences to Latos and his family in this obviously difficult time.

Angels 7, Twins 0: Matt Shoemaker could lose his starting rotation gig when Jered Weaver returns from the disabled list. He’s trying to make that decision more difficult for Mike Scioscia, though, by doing things like striking out ten Twins in six shutout innings and allowing only two hits. Meanwhile, Chris Ianetta homered and drove in four on the night.

Blue Jays 7, Athletics 1: Russell Martin, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion each homered. Martin’s was a three-run shot. Mark Buehrle won his 11th, allowing one run and eight hits in seven innings. The game was a Buehrle Special too, lasting only two hours and thirty-eight minutes.

Giants 9, Padres 3: Chris Heston had a no-hitter going into the sixth inning and ended up allowing only that hit while pitching seven and a third. Hunter Pence, Brandon Crawford and Hector Sanchez all homered. Sanchez’s was a grand slam.

Big night for slugging catchers, no?

And That Happened: Sunday’s scores and highlights


source: Getty Images

Dodgers 5, Nationals 0: Zack Greinke with eight more shutout innings to increase his scoreless innings streak to 43 2/3. The record, of course, is Orel Hershisher’s 59. Bryce Harper went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and a walk against him and after the game said “I think he was okay . . .  For me, I don’t think he was very tough,” and said that the key to his winning yesterday was that he was “getting five to six inches off of the plate.” Which makes him just the latest National who, for whatever reason, thinks it’s important to say how unimpressed he was by the team or player who just handed his ass back to him.

Orioles 9, Tigers 3: I was at this game and, in fact, took in the whole series. And while I am always skeptical of narratives and omens and the identification of turning points and watershed moments, it’s hard to escape the feeling that one was happening here for the Tigers. Talking to fans and even some Tigers people revealed this to be the weekend when everyone’s feeling that, if thusandsuch just happens, the season can be saved was disposed of. No one feels that way right now. Indeed, many feel like the run the Tigers have been on the past few years is over and this weekend was when everyone began to accept it.

In the 5th or 6th inning, I saw this from my seats:


It was a car fire in a parking lot a block or two from the ballpark. But it served as a nice symbol for Justin Verlander’s performance and current trajectory. For the bullpen. For the Miguel Cabrera-free Tigers offense. For the season. And maybe even the current mini-dynasty the Tigers have put together. Fire sale, anyone?

Indians 5, Reds 3: Cleveland takes two of three from Cincinnati in the Battle for Ohio. And no, it’s not the case that the loser of this series gets stuck with Ohio. The Reds walked Indians batters with the bases loaded four times. FOUR TIMES. They gave up ten free passes in all, six of which came from the misfiring arm of Johnny Cueto. There are a lot of miserable ways to lose a ballgame, but walking in four of the opponents’ five runs has got to be among the most miserable possible.

Yankees 2, Mariners 1: Mark Teixeira’s homer put the Yankees over the top but the big takeaway here was CC Sabathia not, you know, sucking. One run over six innings and seven strikeouts? That’s what the Yankees need from him to stay in first place.

Blue Jays 4, Rays 0: A couple of two-run homers and eight shutout innings from Marco Estrada, who just loves pitching against the Rays, it seems. Remember this last month? That’s 21 straight scoreless innings for Estrada against the Rays this season.


Phillies 8, Marlins 7: Down a run in the 9th, Jeff Francoeur hits a two-run homer to give the Phillies an 8-7 walk-off win over the Marlins:

Best part: as he crosses home plate Freddy Galvis kicks him in the butt. As one does.

Royals 4, White Sox 1: The Royals just keep on humming, taking two of three from the Sox. Danny Duffy, backed by some slick defense, allowed one run over eight innings and somehow rapped 11 hits off of Chris Sale. Lorenzo Cain and Paulo Orlando homered. The Royals are now 20 games above .500.

Brewers 6, Pirates 1: The Pirates were the hottest team in baseball heading into the All-Star break. The time off didn’t do them wonders, as they come in to Milwaukee and get swept by the last place Brewers. Taylor Jungmann improves to 5-1 since his callup.

Astros 10, Rangers 0: Dallas Keuchel struck out a career-high 13 in seven scoreless innings. And afterwards talked about how Rougned Odor “disrespects the game.” So a strong performance from Keuchel in both the pitching and the ballplayer cliche department on Sunday.

Mets 3, Cardinals 1: Eighteen innings and nearly six hours of baseball, most of which featured a score of 1-1 0-0. The Mets finally broke through with a run-scoring sac fly and a squeeze play. Overall the Mets left 25 men on base and went 1-for-26 with runners in scoring position. But they won, which makes those numbers mere conversation pieces.

Athletics 14, Twins 1: Jake Smolinski homered twice for four RBI and Josh Reddick hit a grand slam. Billy Butler and Josh Phegley each hit two-run homers.

Giants 2, Diamondbacks 1: Madison Bumgarner only went five innings as he didn’t have his best stuff, but the Dbacks still could only get one run off of him. Justin Maxwell homered and Hunter Pence doubled in a run in a game where all the scoring was concluded by the third inning.

Cubs 4, Braves 1: Jake Arrieta struck out ten in seven shutout innings, besting Braves All-Star Shelby Miller. Arrieta is 5-0 with a 0.96 ERA over his last six starts.

Rockies vs. Padres: POSTPONED; Red Sox vs. Angels: POSTPONED: It was the first home Padres rain out since 2006. The first Angels home rainout since 1995. Which can mean only one thing:

I haven’t seen your face in a year
I can’t wait till I get there
Just to kiss and squeeze and hug
Girl you know the rest ’cause they tell me

It never rains in southern California
It never rains in southern California

Maybe I’ll take the flight out tonight
and you can pick me up about 8
I don’t know what airline girl
but I know it won’t be late ’cause they tell me

It never rains in southern California
It never rains in southern California