Game 69: Another look at Verlander’s pitching
No, Justin Verlander’s fastball doesn’t look like it’s there yet.
Yes, his command resembles his younger form, even during part of the winning streak he had going.
And yes, 3.72 is a high ERA for him.
But here’s the thing: Even when he works through things, Justin Verlander is still a darn good pitcher.
How good? Well, if you go by Fangraphs’ calculations, he entered Tuesday night with the seventh-highest Wins Above Replacement among Major League pitchers. At 3.0 WAR, he had the same number as Yu Darvish, slightly above Clay Buchholz (2.9), and just barely under teammates Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer (3.1).
And if you go by Fielding Independent Pitching, he entered Tuesday tied for fifth in the Majors, trailing Sanchez but better than Scherzer, Darvish, Chris Sale and others.
Call it mediocrity if you want, but Verlander’s mediocrity is another pitcher’s greatness. He looked fairly bad in back-to-back losses in May, and the offensive support he received means he probably cost them those games. But he had two losses in April in which the Tigers were shut out.
“It’s been a battle so far,” Verlander said. “Obviously, you have that stretch of three or four starts where it was pretty frustrating. You know, I guess I’m always trying to get better, and I feel like I’ve made adjustments to get to that point.
“I feel like I’ve been getting better, better, and better. That’s not necessarily going to work towards a perfect game, but you’re not going to get better every time. There’s ups and downs, peaks and valleys, tonight was just one of those nights where two long balls hurt me. You know who knows what happens if I’m able to execute those pitches a little bit better. I’m not saying that I regressed, it’s just one of those games. This is Major League Baseball, you’re not going to be perfect every time.”
His fastball command has been a roller coaster. When he was struggling a month ago he went from a low of barely 50 percent strikes with his fastball up to 60 percent. When he seemed like he was right again, that percentage climbed to 70 percent.
On Tuesday, he threw 24 of his 39 fastballs for strikes, or about 61.5 percent, according to MLB.com Gameday and brooksbaseball.net.
He paid for one bad fastball with Adam Jones’ three-run homer. He paid for it more with four walks, three of them to Nick Markakis. He also paid for it in a pitch count that went from a 15-pitch first inning to a 15-pitch second, then a 30-pitch third.
“The one inning, it almost got up to the point where I looked up and I said, ‘Oh, this is going to be a tough one for the manager,’” Jim Leyland said. “Because he’s possibly got 60 pitches after three innings. As a manager, that’s not a good feeling.”
The mantra for Leyland was fastball command. As many different pitches as Verlander can throw in any count, he still has to command the basic fastball.
“His repertoire is what it is, but normally a successful evening for your pitching starts with commanding your fastball,” Leyland said. “When you don’t have that, that takes away some other stuff, because you’re not getting other stuff behind in the count. There’s really not a sophisticated answer. He just didn’t command the fastball.”
He hit 97-98 mph on his fastball several times, but it was early. He didn’t build with velocity so much as he spiked it, and that’s usually not a good sign with him.
Was he getting squeezed on the strike zone? It looked like it at times, and Verlander had to keep his composure. Still, those aren’t using downfalls for him.
“I felt I threw about 10 to 15 pitches tonight that were pretty doggone close to being perfect, just off,” Verlander said. “I think that goes to show you how fine of a line it is at this level between having a good start and not.”