Vintage Verlander, slightly different approach
Justin Verlander built his reputation stepping up when the Tigers needed him, whether it was a winner-take-all game in Oakland or a rubber game in a regular-season series with the lineup struggling and the bullpen taxed. In that sense, Wednesday’s 2-1 Tigers win was vintage Verlander.
“I can’t count the number of times our bullpen was strapped over the years and Ver went out and gave us eight or nine innings that day,” pitching coach Jeff Jones said of Verlander’s eight innings of four-hit ball. “That’s what it was reminiscent of for me.”
In other ways, though, Wednesday was a step towards Verlander 2.0, both in what he threw and how he carried himself. The your-best-against-my-best Verlander was replaced by a pitcher who studied scouting reports, adjusted his game and attacked hitters’ soft spots.
“His preparation and focus the last couple of games has been outstanding,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “He’s really intensively looked into what hitters can and can’t hit and attacked them at what he thought was their weakest spots, especially when they’ve matched up on his spots.”
The power fastball at the letters became a slightly slower fastball spotted on the corners. The secondary pitches weren’t so secondary.
They’re also trying to emphasize location and execution over power. A mechanical tweak before his previous start at Boston created more movement on his fastball, making it more deceptive. It didn’t do much for power, but that wasn’t the intent.
“He’s thrown some pitches this year 96-97,” Jones said, “but what we’re talking about with him is there’s so many guys nowadays that throw that hard, especially coming out of bullpens, that hitters are more used to seeing that. Not that we don’t want him to step on the gas sometimes — he’s still going to — but we have to make sure that we maintain location to go with it. There’s so many guys that throw hard that hitters are more apt to put a good swing on a 97 mph fastball if it’s in a bad spot. I mean, [Curt] Casali hit a home run off a 100 mph fastball Monday.“
With command and movement, Verlander could throw a slower fastball and get some of the results he used to with the harder.
“I think it was a lot of the command and also, I think, some of the mechanical adjustments I made,” Verlander said. “I think guys weren’t seeing it as well.
Around the same time, Jones said they worked on his slider to get more movement.
“It’s a good pitch for him,” Jones said. “He’s still got a good curveball. He’s got a good change. And he got away from the slider because it was a little flat for a little while.”
The result wasn’t just the best outing of his season, but statistically one of the better outings of his career. His 10 strikeouts marked his first game in double digits since the regular-season finale in 2013, which was better known for Henderson Alvarez’s no-hitter, and his 29th double-digit strikeout game of his career.
Of those, however, Wednesday marked just the fifth time in Verlander’s career that he struck out double-digit batters without giving up a walk. The last was Sept. 24, 2010, the year before Verlander’s MVP season. He struck out at least 10 batters four times in 2011, three of them with one walk.
The 2011 Verlander had a presence on the mound, and an intimidation factor he valued. A mound visit often met a glare from a pitcher who didn’t like the interruption. On Wednesday, as Jones made that trek to the mound to talk about their strategy for Joey Butler, Verlander didn’t glare. He held up his glove over Jones’ mouth as he talked.
“You know, everybody’s always talking with their glove over their mouth,” Verlander said, “and he’s coming out there obviously talking about our scouting report against Butler so … I don’t know. Pitcher’s out there talking like this, catcher’s talking like this, and he’s just out there talking. It was funny. He laughed. We laughed about it after the inning, too.”
Said Jones: “That was a first. It was pretty funny, actually. As soon as he put it up there, I started laughing.”