JUPITER, Fla. -- Drew VerHagen is a vastly different pitcher than the one who played for the Detroit Tigers from 2014-19, and it’s not because he emerged from two seasons in Japan with a changed windup or an additional out pitch.
VerHagen, a strong hopeful for the No. 5 spot in the Cardinals starting rotation, is a different pitcher and, most importantly, a much tougher pitcher because of the mental gymnastics he was put through while playing abroad for two seasons.
First off, VerHagen was away from home in a country where he didn’t speak the language and because of the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, he didn’t have one visitor for two years while living in Japan. Secondly, managers in Japan did their homework on VerHagen and sometimes stacked their lineups with nine lefthanded hitters to try and expose a former weakness of the 6-foot-6, 230-pounder.
“I don’t want to toot my own horn, but you have to be tough to stick it out there [like] that. It’s a lonely experience,” said VerHagen, who endured his worst outing of Spring Training on Thursday in a 7-4 loss to the Marlins. “I was 100% on my own and I didn’t have one visitor for two years because the borders were closed. There’s a lot of guys that left and said, ‘I don’t care; you can keep the money.’ It happened a lot -- close to half of the foreigners over there left.”
The Cardinals have a history of success of finding hidden gems in Asia, and they are hopeful that a tougher, more-seasoned VerHagen can fill the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation while staff ace Jack Flaherty rehabilitates his injured right shoulder. Miles Mikolas won 18 games and finished sixth in Cy Young voting in 2018 after being signed away from the Yomiuri Giants. Kwang-Hyun Kim had a 2.97 ERA in 145 2/3 innings over two years before returning to the Korean Baseball Organization. Also, Aaron Brooks -- who pitched the past two seasons in South Korea -- made the Cardinals Opening Day roster following a strong spring.
VerHagen, 31, is in competition with Jake Woodford and top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. While VerHagen got his third Spring Training start on Thursday, Woodford and the left-handed Liberatore are scheduled to throw against one another in an intrasquad game on Friday morning.
Manager Oliver Marmol said of naming a fifth starter prior to Thursday’s Opening Day game at Busch Stadium against the Pirates: “We’re wanting to make that call really, really soon.”
Even though VerHagen allowed seven runs on Thursday -- all of them coming off Jorge Soler’s three-run double and Jazz Chisolm Jr.’s grand slam -- Marmol likes what he’s seen from the tall right-hander this spring.
“[VerHagen’s mental makeup] has impressed me the most -- not that the stuff coming out of his hand isn’t impressive,” Marmol said. “The way he carries himself, the way he’s been able to fit in the clubhouse and he’s made an impression on some of the veteran guys, particularly [Adam Wainwright]. His overall presence, preparation and dedication to his craft are impressive.”
In parts of six seasons with the Tigers from 2014-19, VerHagen appeared in 127 games (eight starts) and went 10-10 with a 5.11 ERA. In two seasons in Japan, VerHagen went 13-14 while striking out 215 batters against 62 walks. Most importantly, VerHagen figured out how to better attack left-handed hitters, when pressed by one Japanese manager.
“When I was in Japan they would stack nine lefties against me, so I was able to work on it,” said VerHagen with a laugh. “They were all slap-hitting lefties who were pesky outs, so I had to figure it out. Before I left and went to Japan, I never threw a four-seam [fastball] ever. Then, I learned to throw that four-seam to get it in on their hands and that’s a big pitch [against lefties]. I throw a curveball and a slider to lefties and righties, but [a] four-seam in and change up away evens them out, and now I’m productive against lefties.”
Prior to Thursday, VerHagen was mostly able to pitch out of trouble despite not having his best slider -- his out pitch in Japan. He is hopeful that his slider will improve as the season progresses and that he can fill whatever role the Cardinals need from him.
“I’ve been here only a few weeks and the entire culture is so different than anything I’ve ever been around,” VerHagen added. “You can see it from the top down. There’s one goal in mind here, and it’s to win a World Series. You can see it in the day-to-day drills that we do, fundamentals and meetings. It’s very professional and I love it.”