WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The changeup is a pitch that's come and gone for Astros pitcher Justin Verlander the past seven years or so, and even at age 35 -- and having won a Cy Young Award, Most Valuable Player Award and a World Series title -- he's still trying to refine it.
The desire and drive to improve on a career that's trending toward the Hall of Fame separates Verlander from the rest of the pack. Still, you wouldn't have known by watching his flawless outing in an 8-7 win over the Mets on Monday afternoon that he needed to change anything.
Verlander, making his Grapefruit League debut in an Astros uniform, struck out four of the six batters he faced in two perfect innings against the Mets at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. He threw 20 of his 28 pitches for strikes, including a 97-mph fastball on his final pitch.
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"I felt great," he said. "I don't think I could ask for any more out of Day One on the mound. Ball was coming out well. Pretty decent control with the fastball. I would say curveball, even though I didn't throw a lot, doesn't quite feel right out of the hand. I threw some good changeups, a couple of pretty good sliders. Everything wasn't quite midseason form. There's a reason it's called midseason form, though. Overall, Day One, very pleased."
Verlander's bread and butter is still his mid-to-upper 90s fastball, which he throws for more than half of his pitches. He mixes in a slider and a power curveball, but the changeup remains a work in progress. He threw three in a row Monday to the Mets' Brandon Nimmo. That's something he normally wouldn't do in a regular game, but he threw a good one and wanted some repetition.
Verlander said tinkering with a split-fingered grip might have helped him get a feeling of getting back on top of the ball. But the key is how he releases the ball, because that creates the action and differential in speed he is looking for.
"The changeup is still a mental grind for him, because he wants it to be perfect, like a lot of his other pitches," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "Anytime there's separation from your second- or third-best pitch to your fourth-best pitch, there can be a little bit of angst when it comes to not executing it perfectly."
In addition to the changeup, Verlander wants to work on spinning his curveball better this spring and making strides forward with his slider. He's made a few adjustments recently on how he works his hands throughout his delivery.
"The first few pitches you kind of get out of your regular game plan and you kind of try to do a little bit too much, because it's the first time in a competitive situation, and then you kind of settle down," he said. "What I was really most pleased about is how the ball was coming out of my hand when I settled in and tried to pitch and hit my spots. It was still coming out pretty good. It was a great sign for me."