Tigers' Verlander has regained ace status (cont.)
After an All-America career at Old Dominion, Verlander was the second overall pick of the 2004 draft. He cruised through the minor leagues in '05 (11-2, 1.29 ERA in High A and Double A) and in '06 and '07 he became the first player ever to pitch in the World Series, appear in an All-Star Game, be named Rookie of the Year and throw a no-hitter in his first two seasons, winning 35 games with a 3.64 ERA along the way.
But like Austin Powers without his mojo, in 2008 Verlander was a pitcher without his "stuff." His velocity was down several miles per hour, and his breaking pitches weren't sharp. After throwing -- playoffs included -- more than 400 big-league innings in his first two seasons, Verlander had decided to dial back his preseason regimen. He eliminated long toss and only threw "85 or 90 percent" early in spring training. In doing so he lapsed into poor mechanics: arching his back, landing on the side of his left foot and raising his arm slot. "When I tried to amp it up, I realized my velocity wasn't there, and I wasn't hurt or anything," Verlander said.
The decline was steep, as Verlander led the AL with 17 losses and had career highs in ERA (4.84) and walks (87). He scrambled for answers from everyone around him. "He'd ask, 'Am I doing this? Am I doing that? Am I tipping pitches?' " Thames said. "I told him, 'Dude, I'm not a pitcher.' " Third baseman Brandon Inge, who caught 14 of Verlander's start in '08, suspects the Tigers' weak defense shook his pitcher's confidence. "Whenever a pitcher knows his infield defense is not as good, they try to pitch to the corners, pitch away from contact and they get in trouble," Inge said.
Last September after the shortest outing of his career -- a five-run, 1 2/3-inning loss to the Yankees -- Verlander complained about the umpire's "tight zone" and said, "There's been a lot of misfortune that's gone my way this year." His manager, Jim Leyland, responded by publicly imploring Verlander to take more accountability, telling the Detroit Free Press, "You need to have the ability every once in a while to say, 'I stunk' -- not that the strike zone was tight. You have to say, 'You know what? I was horse s---.' "
Sitting in front of his locker in the Comerica Park clubhouse a year later, Verlander sounds like a man who took Leyland's words to heart. "For two years this game came pretty easy to me at the big-league level," he said. "I'd just go out there, throw and things fell into place for me. I'm not saying it is an easy game -- I quickly found out that it's not. It just seemed that this was the way it was going to be forever. I guess, maybe, through that process I lost a little bit of my edge."
An offseason resident of Lakeland, Fla., home of Tigertown, Verlander worked with the team's strength and conditioning coach, Javair Gillett, to restructure his workout plan, reducing his upper-body lifting. He saw a physical therapist twice a week to stretch out his chest and arms. With consultation from Knapp, he lowered his arm slot, reinstated long toss and worked on attacking the strike zone more frequently.
Verlander tinkered with his delivery further. Just before raising his front leg, he now lowers his hands to his belt and back to his chest, before separating the ball from his black Rawlings glove. By keeping the glove active, he's less likely to tip pitches. The move also slows his pace by preventing Verlander from rushing through the balance point of his delivery. As a teenager, he worked so quickly he'd throw 180 pitches in a 30-minute bullpen session. Even now Laird will often slow Verlander's pace by idly staring at the batter, pretending to contemplate the next pitch call.
Despite the offseason changes, Verlander showed no signs of improvement in his first four starts this season. He was 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in late April when he sat himself down for a pep talk: "I said, What's changed? I knew the year before my stuff wasn't quite there. Now I worked really hard and got my stuff back, but I'm not getting the results. OK, what's changed from then to now? The only thing I came up with was my mentality on the mound and the day of my start." Verlander is naturally easygoing and full of idle energy -- "always moving and fidgety," in his words -- so he began channeling that energy into intensity on start days.
In his next 18 starts, from April 27 through July 29, he was baseball's best pitcher, going 12-3 with a 2.17 ERA and 147 strikeouts in 124 1/3 innings. Other than a heated moment during a late-August start in which television cameras caught Verlander and Laird yelling at each other in the dugout after a four-run inning, Verlander has been on a much more even keel this season. Leyland attributes his ace's reinvention to "just maturity as a human being. Experience is a wonderful thing."
When Justin Verlander was a 10, he and his father were skipping stones across a small pond near the family home in Goochland County, Va. Richard picked up one rock and threw it as far as he could, his toss plopping halfway across the pond. Then Justin grabbed his own rock and attempted the same, only he chucked it across the entire pond and into the woods on the other side. "At that moment, I was like, 'Holy crap, this kid has got a special arm,' " Richard said.
As Justin grew, his arm strength continued to improve; alas, his control did not. Some Little League players cried in the on-deck circle for fear of being hit, enough that a few parents tried to get him thrown out of the league. Verlander says he didn't know any better, admitting, "I was young and just trying to throw the ball as hard as I could." Recognizing his son's potential and need for better coaching, Richard started taking Justin to the Richmond Baseball Academy, where he received lessons from Bob Smith, a former pitching coach at Kentucky and Tennessee (and who is currently in that role at George Washington).
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