Verlander dedicated to finding form for October
Saddled with heavy workloads, Tigers star looking to simplify approach down stretch
DETROIT -- Technically, baseball is the one sport without a clock. However, Justin Verlander can sense it running down. If it was possible for a calendar to tick, he'd hear it.
As a starting pitcher, that countdown runs off faster than most. Every day is a new day for Verlander, but it's five days until his next start. Every curveball that reminds him of last year, every fastball he's left to regret, lingers until his next chance to take the mound.
One would be hard-pressed to find someone who has worked harder between starts than Verlander has this season. But in his situation, no one senses the countdown to October more than he does.
"The deadline is there for me," Verlander said. "I've got to figure it out, and I've got to figure it out in a hurry."
Verlander has four regular-season starts remaining, beginning Friday against the Royals, the same team that beat him last weekend in Kansas City. It's the same team that has beaten him three times this year -- and won all five of its meetings with him -- after he went 15-2 against the club for the first seven seasons of his career.
How Verlander got here, from the game's most intimidating pitcher and a postseason hero against Oakland to potentially this postseason's biggest mystery, is a lot more complex than a deadline. It's not as simple as velocity; otherwise, he likely wouldn't have lost to the Royals on a 98-mph fastball to Salvador Perez. It's not as basic as workload, or else Verlander wouldn't be among the league leaders in pitches thrown yet again this year, and he wouldn't be peaking with his velocity in the season's final month.
Even the bottom line of wins and losses is difficult to summarize. Verlander has gone 0-3 with a 4.17 ERA over his last six starts, the longest winless streak of his career. Yet, at times, he has felt closer to his old form over those outings than at any point this season.
"In the last 10 starts, there have been numerous times when I thought his stuff was good," pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "I just think he's getting sometimes into some situations where he needs to make a pitch, and he hasn't been able to at times, and the other team has made him pay."
Verlander built up from 97 to 99 mph on the Comerica Park radar gun on his 115th pitch two starts ago, encouraging enough that it overshadowed his no-decision over seven scoreless innings in an eventual 4-0 Tigers loss to Cleveland. He hit 98-99 mph consistently in his sixth inning last time out in Kansas City, and he had no second thoughts over the one Perez hit out for the eventual deciding runs.
"It was 98 [mph], it was down and it was in," Verlander said.
For the season, Verlander's average fastball is slower -- more than a mile per hour from last year. Brooksbaseball.net, which compiles data from MLB.com's Gameday application, tabs the drop from 95.7 mph in 2011 to 95 last year to 93.8 now. Fangraphs, using pitch f/x from MLB.com, tracks the drop gradually, from 95 to 94.7 to 94.
Verlander's velocity within this season, however, has been building up. In these two September starts, he has averaged about 94.8 mph on his fastball, according to brooksbaseball.net. It's higher than any other month this season, and would be higher than his average from last year except for September and October.
What Verlander has sought is velocity without having to overthrow. His highest average fastball this season was 96 in Texas on May 16, but he was so wild throwing it that he gave up two bases-loaded walks, matching his career total before this season.
Verlander's recent velocity, by contrast, has been more composed.
"We have what we kind of call a cruising speed and an add-on speed," Jones said. "I think he's comfortable where he's at."
A better gauge than velocity in most of Verlander's outings has been his fastball command. A strike rate of around 60 percent with his fastball has been the dividing line between decent outings and bad. Verlander topped 70 percent over his seven scoreless innings against Cleveland, including 10 swings and misses out of 72 thrown, according to brooksbaseball. He topped that in Kansas City last weekend, but with fewer misses and more foul balls.
"There's a series of pitches where it's like, 'Got it. That's it.' And then there's one or two where it's like, 'My arm's a little late,' or 'It's kind of dragging behind,'" Verlander said recently. "When you're a starting pitcher, everything's about consistency. You need to be able to repeat. I know that, and it's just a matter of getting there."
For the season, Verlander is throwing 56.2 percent of his fastballs for strikes according to fangraphs, down from 58 percent last year but up from 55 percent in 2011. Getting hitters to chase fastballs out of the strike zone, though, has been tougher. And when they've swung at fastballs in the strike zone, they're hitting them better than at any other point in Verlander's career: Hitters are batting .289 off his fastball, up 51 points from last season, and a career-high .333 on fastballs put in play.
The focus on Verlander's fastball has overshadowed his work with his other pitches. His curveball has arguably been nearly as inconsistent, from a dominant summer stretch to a spurt of hangers for big hits. Verlander has given up three homers off the curve, matching his total from the previous two seasons combined. He has thrown more offspeed pitches with each progressing season, topping out this year. His slider, once his fourth-best pitch, is now a bigger part of his mix.
Verlander's biggest piece of encouragement in recent weeks was an observation from his catcher, Alex Avila, on a pitch against the Indians. At the end of the inning, Avila told Verlander that he looked like himself.
"Not so much the velocity, just the way he looked from the start of his leg kick to the follow-through once he released the ball," Avila said. "I mean, I've seen him a lot from that angle, and it just looked fluid to me. It looked like a natural motion for him."
Said manager Jim Leyland: "I think he has worked harder, probably from a mental perspective, not so much physically, to find where he wants to be with his delivery and release point."
Verlander is looking for that on all his pitches, not just his fastball. That overall crispness is where all the pitches he has thrown over the years come into question. Verlander has thrown 28,517 since his rookie season in 2006, about 1,300 more than anyone in the game. That's just regular-season work.
Add in the Tigers' postseason runs the past two years, and Verlander has thrown 11,812 pitches since 2011, a thousand more than anybody else. Just seven other pitchers in baseball have thrown even 10,000 pitches in that stretch.
Managing a pitching staff after long postseason runs is an annual challenge for some teams. The success of Detroit's pitching staff -- notably Max Scherzer -- has been a credit to Jones' work. Even so, he knows that many pitches make an impact.
"I don't think there's any question it can have some effect," Jones said. "He's thrown more pitches than anybody in baseball, and even though he probably doesn't look at it that way, I don't see how it can't have somewhat of an effect to pitch as much as he has in the last few years."
The plan to get Verlander ready is to just pitch. The Tigers have reached the point where they're trying to get away from mechanics and tweaks.
"I've talked about adjustments all year," Verlander said. "God knows I've made many of them, it seems like one every start."
Whether it's pretty or ugly, Jones wants to send Verlander out and let him compete. It's simple, but that's the plan. If his last pitches are his best, it'll be a reward for all the work put in to get here.
"I think he's handled it extremely well, to be honest with you," Jones said. "It's been a journey. It's been some ups and downs. He's stayed pretty much on an even keel. He's really hard on himself, and he wants to be the best, and I can't fault him for that."