May 25th, 2014

Game 46: On Justin Verlander and tweaking

Jim Leyland knew Justin Verlander’s perfectionist tendency to always try to get better. Brad Ausmus is learning that.

“This is part of what makes [Verlander] great is he’s ultra-competitive and he’s willing to try things to get a little bit of an edge,” Ausmus said after Verlander gave up nine runs Sunday. “Obviously, his stuff is great, but his makeup is unbelievable.”

That said, Ausmus said before the game, “Sometimes we have to talk him off the ledge and remind him that he’s a pretty darn good pitcher. But pitchers like that, the competitiveness in them won’t allow them to rest unless they’re absolutely perfect.”

The way Verlander’s week has gone, one wonders if Verlander is at that stage.

His overhead delivery Sunday seemingly came out of nowhere. He said he picked it up talking with pitching coach Jeff Jones as a way to keep him back in his delivery.

“He said he’s done it with some guys in the past and it allowed them to stay back a little bit longer,” Verlander said, “which is something that I’ve kind of been thinking about, or working on. It felt pretty good in the bullpen. It just didn’t quite translate into the game.”

This was not the adjustment he had made between Baltimore and Cleveland, when he was trying to hide the ball better.

“It’s a delivery adjustment,” he said after his Cleveland start. “It’s something I think I need to get right. I need to hide the ball a little better. I think I’ve been flying pretty bad the first bit of the season, and that leads to a lot of things — balls a little flat, everything’s a little up, hitters see the ball earlier. It’s something that I need to do to be where I want to be. It kind of came and went but started to feel pretty good there towards the end.”

He was 4-2 with a 2.67 ERA in eight starts before Baltimore, a solid opening stretch, but maybe not a Verlander opening stretch. He wasn’t unhittable. Still, he had gone seven or more innings with three runs or less in six of seven starts at that point.

He had a shutout going in Baltimore before giving up five runs in the fifth, three of them from a Nelson Cruz home run on a breaking ball that was headed for the dirt. He has seemingly struggled ever since.

His ERA three starts ago was 2.67. After Sunday, it’s now 4.04. To ask what’s wrong with Justin Verlander this season might be the wrong question. The right one might be: What’s going on with Verlander lately?

It’s arguably more about fastball command than fastball velocity. His average fastball is 92.1 mph this season, according to Fangraphs, 93.2 according to Pitch f/x, but both were low at this point last year. He’s throwing it in the strike zone less often, though, from 55 percent last year to 51.6 so far this season, and is getting about four percent fewer strikes. Hitters are chasing it less often, and when they swing at it, they’re missing less often. Even so, the batting average and slugging percentage off the fastball is lower, according to STATS.

“I just need to get back to executing my pitches, and that’s what I’m really working on right now,” Verlander said. “I know I’m not executing the way I would like. I’m getting a lot of times when I don’t execute. Just trying to be able to repeat my delivery and get back to that.”

It’s not for lack of trying. Nobody knows his mechanics like Verlander and Jones, so it’s obviously an earnest effort to try to get him back to his old form. Whether there’s some degree of the perfect being the enemy of the good is a matter of debate. If it is, logic suggests he’ll figure it out.

Eventually, Verlander should settle in. What he settles into, and whether it’s what he expects out of himself, remains to be seen.

Sunday’s lineups: Tigers vs. Rangers

Memorial Day 002

Rajai Davis, 6-for-16 lifetime off former Tiger Colby Lewis, gets a day at the leadoff spot, though the lineup is virtually the same as it was yesterday. Miguel Cabrera gets to DH today, with Victor Martinez getting to show off his glove at first base.

On the Rangers side, Shin-Soo Choo is back in the lineup after leaving Saturday’s game with a bad left ankle. Choo is the DH, with Michael Choice getting the start in left field.

Gameday | TV: FS Detroit, MLB.TV | Radio: 97.1 FM, AM 1270, Gameday Audio

TIGERS (career numbers off Colby Lewis)

  1. Rajai Davis, LF (6-for-16, double, 4 K’s)
  2. Ian Kinsler, 2B (0-for-3)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, DH (7-for-18, 3 doubles, 2 walks, K)
  4. Victor Martinez, 1B (6-for-12, double, HR, 2 walks)
  5. Torii Hunter, RF (2-for-19, double, HR, 3 walks, 6 K’s)
  6. Austin Jackson, CF (9-for-21, 2 doubles, HR, walk, 5 K’s)
  7. Alex Avila, C (4-for-15, 2 HR, walk, 4 K’s)
  8. Nick Castellanos, 3B
  9. Andrew Romine, SS (1-for-4)

P: Justin Verlander

RANGERS (career numbers vs. Verlander)

  1. Shin-Soo Choo, DH (12-for-50, double, 2 HR, 6 walks, 21 K’s)
  2. Elvis Andrus, SS (5-for-26, 2 walks, 3 K’s)
  3. Mitch Moreland, 1B (4-for-16, 3 doubles, 2 walks, 7 K’s)
  4. Adrian Beltre, 3B (12-for-45, 2 doubles, HR, walk, 9 K’s)
  5. Alex Rios, RF (14-for-40, 3 doubles, triple, 4 walks, 9 K’s)
  6. Leonys Martin, CF (1-for-3, walk, K)
  7. Michael Choice, LF
  8. Robinson Chirinos, C
  9. Rougned Odor, 2B

P: Colby Lewis