Verlander putting focus back on repetition
Righty working to regain command of strike zone with all of his pitches
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander is a creature of routine. It's how his parents raised an energetic kid to stay disciplined through grade school, how a promising young power arm matured into baseball's most dominant pitcher.
Verlander's pregame routine is detailed, down to the minute he begins warming up in the bullpen. His attention to detail is an effort to repeat as much as he can so he has a foundation to count on in trying to get the desired results. That made the sight of Verlander on the mound last month at Cleveland's Progressive Field, his hands coming up over his head as he fired away against the Indians, so odd.
For two innings, Verlander pitched out of the windup with his hands coming up before he fired, borrowing a piece of Max Scherzer's delivery. Those two innings were rough enough that he abandoned the adjustment in the middle of the game and went back to his usual delivery.
"We had talked about it," pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "He had mentioned it. I thought about it. We tried it in the bullpen. He felt comfortable with it. And then once he got in the game, he didn't feel comfortable with it anymore."
It was a bizarre stretch that looked almost like desperation from a pitcher trying to find his old form. It was something more mundane, a timing mechanism Verlander experimented with to stay back in his delivery longer, but it still didn't look good. Not surprisingly, he hasn't done it since, but it shows where he's been in this struggling season.
Verlander is done overhauling his delivery, not that he considers that major. He's done trying to work extra every time he steps on a mound between starts. As Verlander prepares for his start Wednesday against the White Sox and tries to work through one of the worst stretches of his brilliant career, having given up five or more runs in five of his last six starts, he's leaning on what he knows.
Verlander doesn't know if what he's doing is going to work, but he's not freaking out about it.
"I feel like I'm on the right path," he said. "Really, the tweaks are just making sure that I'm doing the same thing, staying in the right spot, and then just not allowing myself to [revert]."
Verlander is an optimist in that he believes repeating his form, with maybe a tweak or two along the way, will get him right. He's a realist in that he knows all the extra side work takes a toll on a pitcher who has already thrown over 500 pitches more than anyone else in baseball since 2011, and well more than that with the postseason included.
"Having done it, I realize that you can't do it," Verlander said. "I threw so much [between starts] last year, I realized that that's not the right way to go about it."
The basic statistics are well known. Verlander's 4.19 ERA through 13 starts is his highest since 2008. His 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings mark his lowest rate since his rookie season in 2006. Verlander is giving up hits at a higher rate than at any point in his career. Just over a third of the way through the season, he is statistically little more than a .500 pitcher trying to cling to a decent ERA.
Finding the reason for the struggles is more complicated. To pin everything on Verlander's much-reported drop in velocity is too simplistic. He has averaged 95 mph and up on his fastball his last two starts and still been hit around, including two home runs against the Blue Jays last Thursday, albeit on offspeed pitches. Verlander has lost velocity on his average fastball every year since 2010, down to 92.4 mph according to FanGraphs, and 94.1 mph according to brooksbaseball.net.
"One of the best years in baseball was when I started the game the first three innings throwing 90-91 [to pace himself]," Verlander insisted. "It's not all about velo."
A 94-mph fastball is a career low for Verlander, but it's a workable pitch if he spots it. Instead, compared with his velocity drop, his fall in strike rate has been more dramatic.
According to STATS, Verlander fired just around 68 percent of his fastballs for strikes every year from 2011-13. So far this season, that rate is just over 63 percent. He's also enjoying a lower rate of swings and misses, both in and out of the strike zone.
"The velocity's better," Verlander said, "but I need to be able to reign that in and control it a little bit better."
The bigger factor for Jones is the success of Verlander's secondary pitches. His curveball has had a similar drop in strike rate as his fastball -- just 42 percent falling in the strike zone. Verlander is getting a higher rate of swings and misses, but not enough, and hitters are pounding it for a .381 average when they put it in play.
It's the secondary pitches that made the Tigers to believe Verlander can succeed over a long-term contract, that he can age gracefully where others have not. As his former manager, Jim Leyland, pointed out, Verlander has three above-average Major League pitches and another that's average.
"The thing about Justin that I think separates him from a lot of guys is his secondary stuff is so good," Jones said.
Jones doesn't believe Verlander is at the point of diminishing pitches yet. Nor, of course, does Verlander, who remembers being at a similar point and searching for answers last season. Eventually, he found them, just in time to reprise his old results and dominate the A's last October.
Verlander doesn't have the answers yet, not even to whether his offseason surgery might be having an impact. But given last year, he has faith he'll find the answers. Verlander is optimistic that despite the results, his last two starts are the signs of better times.
"I don't know if there's a mechanical adjustment I made that allowed me to have better stuff right now," Verlander said, "or if I'm starting to regain my strength in my core that I haven't had for a couple years. If that's it, I can see it getting better and better until I'm 100 percent back. But I can't answer that. I don't know. No excuses. I'm not looking for excuses."