Game 66: Back to the drawing board
Well, now what?
“Back to the drawing board,” Justin Verlander said.
“Right now, he’s scuffling and everyone’s saying he’s done,” Brad Ausmus said. “I don’t think he’s done. I think Justin Verlander will be just fine.”
Last year suggests Verlander will get through this. Long-term history suggests Verlander will age into a thirty-something pitcher, not wither into obscurity. Somehow, though, he has to find the route to get there.
“I’ve got to stay positive,” Verlander said. “Frustrating, yes. End of the world, no. You’ve got to keep your eye on the big picture. Every athlete over the course of their career is going to go through ups and downs. It’s a matter of how you come out of them, not what happens while you’re in it.”
First things first, Verlander is not getting bumped out of the rotation. The only way he gets replaced by Robbie Ray in the Tigers rotation is if he goes on the disabled list, and all sides are saying he’s not hurt.
“Unequivocally no,” Verlander added for emphasis.
He has plenty of things going wrong, but health doesn’t appear to be one of them.
“He’s going to be here all year,” Ausmus said. “He’s one of our pitchers. There’s really no reason to be concerned about him. He’s going to pitch every fifth day. If we have an off day, we might push people back and give him an extra day, but he’s going to pitch.”
He is not going to be skipped in the rotation when next Monday’s off-day comes around, either, it appears.
“We’re not really in a position where we can skip a start right now,” Ausmus said. “We don’t have any options. And I wouldn’t skip a start with Justin Verlander anyway.”
Said Verlander: “I pitch better on five days than six days. So I don’t think skipping a start does anything positive. I think it has the opposite effect.”
That leaves the between-starts work. He was superb at it 2-3 years ago. He was patient with it last year and watched it pay off down the stretch. He’s still looking for it now. But he’s also wary of throwing a ton of pitches between starts.
“I want to stop tinkering,” Verlander said. “But when something’s not right, I guess you have to. There’s a reason all my stuff is up right now. You’ve got to fix that. It shouldn’t feel forced to execute pitches. It should happen naturally. It feels forced right now. That kind of has a snowball effect on the offspeed too. If you’ve got to force yourself to be on top of it, you’re not going to be on top of your offspeed either.”
Right now, he isn’t getting on top of any of his pitches, it seems.
“When the ball gets up, it’s been getting hit,” Ausmus said. “When it’s been getting hit, it’s been costing us runs. That’s the only thing I could tell you.”
He’s more frustrated now, he says, than he was in 2008, otherwise known as the season of Verlander’s discontent, when he led the league in losses.
That, he said, was an up-and-down season, though that was also the season his velocity was down enough that Jack Morris was convinced he was hurt. That season, however, was also what helped make Verlander into Cy Young winner and AL MVP a few years ago, because he made it through those struggles and learned something out of them.
This has been a steady fall for him. Even as the stuff improved, and the velocity improved, the results have not.
“It’s a matter of command,” Alex Avila said.
He’s not throwing 100 mph anymore; those days are surely over. If he was throwing 100, though, he probably still wouldn’t be right, not without his command. It definitely wasn’t there Monday — not on his fastball, not on his other pitches. After all, it was back-to-back sliders that put Verlander behind in the count against Omar Infante, forcing Verlander to challenge Infante with a 2-1 fastball that missed up and over the plate.
“My ball was running a lot today,” Verlander said. “It was a little up. Instead of being on the black, it ran back to the middle up. Middle up’s no bueno.”
As much as it hurts right now, he’s going to have to go through this and learn. He’ll need starts to figure out on his own if he still has what it takes to be the pitcher he once was, or if he has to make the transition many of us have long anticipated into less of a power pitcher and more of a mix pitcher.
The Tigers have seen the transition coming. That eventuality factored into their decision on whether to sign Verlander long-term. The belief has always been that Verlander had the secondary pitches to succeed long-term after his fastball starts to fade.
“He certainly has the repertoire to pitch well into his 30s,” Ausmus said. “I don’t know if this is any indication of any of that. But I know he has the stuff and he has the arm to pitch for quite a while. …
“I’ve played with guys who have come up with another pitch. I’ve played with guys who have stuck with the same pitches and learned to locate better. He’s very capable. He’s got four quality pitches. If he does have to do that as he gets older, I certainly believe this is a guy that could do it.”
Before he does, however, he’s going to have to accept it first. And at this point, at least, he doesn’t believe it’s that time.
“I don’t think I’m there yet,” he said. “I think if you look at my stuff, it’s still there. I’m not throwing 100 in the ninth inning right now, but it’s still — look at a bunch of other pitchers in the league — I’m still stuff-wise there.
“Maybe as much as my ball was running today, I’ll become a sinkerballer. Just bring that into my next start. Just keep using that, locate a little better.”