Tigers expect Verlander to adjust style, bounce back
Dip in fastball velocity means righty likely needs a new approach
SAN DIEGO -- The Tigers believe Justin Verlander is in a good position for a bounce-back season in 2015. They do not necessarily expect his power fastball to bounce back with it.
"Justin may think he is, but I don't think he's going to come out and throw 98-99 [mph] on a regular basis," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said at last week's Winter Meetings. "But we never thought that, when we signed him long-term, that he would do that."
That long-term deal Verlander signed officially begins in 2015, with five consecutive seasons at a $28 million base salary before a $22 million option for 2020, when Verlander will be 37 years old. Tigers officials went into the deal with eyes open, expecting that the hard-throwing style that made Verlander baseball's nastiest pitcher would eventually have to be adapted. Even with what former manager Jim Leyland once described as four above-average pitches, the mix of them would someday have to change, maybe even with another pitch thrown in.
That time may be fast approaching, maybe now. And for the first time, the Tigers are openly talking about it.
"[Pitching coach Jeff Jones and Verlander] and I have talked about this -- midseason last year," manager Brad Ausmus said, "about, 'There's going to be a point where you're going to have to do something a little different.' And Ver is very much like every other very talented player I've ever played with.
"Most guys when they're that good and they've done things a certain way and have had All-Star, Cy Young, MVP type success, they're not in a hurry to change it. But I do think Ver is finally understanding that it may be time to do some things that he didn't do before in order to get that successful second half of his career."
Nearly every power pitcher, Ausmus said, has to adapt, either with a new pitch or a new setup. Ausmus cited his old teammate, Roy Oswalt. Others might cite Roy Halladay. Tigers fans might cite Frank Tanana, though his change was injury-forced and came before he came home to Detroit.
"Certainly an injury can be an impetus for a guy to change his style of pitching," Ausmus said, "but very often what happens is the guy doesn't pitch to the level that he thinks he should be pitching at and he goes, 'Well, I don't want to pitch like this anymore. I want to pitch more like I did before.' And he makes a change."
Short of Nolan Ryan, it happens to everyone. And though Verlander grew up idolizing Ryan, and even had his fastball compared to Ryan's a few years ago, aging like Ryan is another matter.
"I've seen other guys in their careers, we've talked about other guys who go through this," Dombrowski said. "I think he has to make adjustments, because he's not going to sit back and just fire the ball by guys on a consistent basis, but I think he realizes that. He's prepared to do that."
In fairness, part of Verlander's struggles stemmed from his core muscle surgery in January. It didn't cost him his Opening Day start, but it cost him his usual rigorous offseason training regimen. The resulting season saw some of his worst numbers since 2008, including a 4.54 ERA, 104 earned runs allowed, 206 innings pitched, 6.4 innings per start and a 2.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Verlander allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time since his rookie season of 2006, and his 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings marked his lowest rate since '06.
While the stats were out of sorts, the metrics on the pitches behind them continued a trend. For the season, Verlander's fastball averaged a career-low 92.3 mph, according to Fangraphs.com, dropping a mile per hour under the previous year's average for the second straight season. The average has fallen every year since he hit his career-best average of 95.6 mph in 2009.
At the same, according to STATS, his rate of swings and misses off his fastball fell from 19.6 percent in 2012 to 19 percent in '13 to 13.8 percent this past season, including just 12.2 percent on fastballs in the strike zone. His .317 batting average allowed on fastballs put in play was about the same as in 2013, but the .455 slugging percentage was an increase.
Still, Verlander's fastball usage rate has remained about the same since his MVP season of 2011, comprising about 56 percent of his total pitches. His rates on his secondary pitches have shifted year to year, notably an increased use of his slider, but his game has clearly revolved around his fastball.
Even so, Verlander has adapted how he starts off hitters over the years. According to STATS, he threw first-pitch fastballs to three-quarters of the hitters he faced in 2011, 72.4 percent in '12, 69.1 percent in '13 and 65.5 percent this past season. His first-pitch sliders and curveballs have ticked up each year. He has increasingly saved his fastball for when he's ahead in the count, from 40.5 percent in 2011 to 45.4 percent in '14.
"He still throws plenty hard," Dombrowski said. "He can throw easily in the mid-90s on a consistent basis. But he does have a good slider, he does have a good curveball, he does have a good changeup, and so I look for him to work hard.
"I texted him on something [this offseason] and he said, 'I'm totally committed to be the best pitcher I possibly can.' He said, 'I was not happy with my year last year.' As you know, he is a very driven individual."
Said Ausmus: "I'm not going to lie: There's a difference between a guy who throws 94 and a guy who throws 99. ... With all that being said, most really good pitchers over the course of their careers who have pitched for 15 years in the big leagues, there is a transition period where they stop throwing the velocity they came up throwing and they come up with another pitch or they alter their style of pitching and extended their careers. Usually it turns out to be the second half of their careers."
One pitch that often comes up in such a situation is a two-seamer, often sacrificing strikeouts for groundouts. Other times, it's a cutter. Either way, it's a different look off the fastball that can make the fastball better.
"I don't know if it would specifically be a two-seamer, without getting into what pitch," Ausmus said. "I've talked to him, and Jonesy and I, we've talked about different pitches, possibilities, maybe another pitch that he could try. But I won't get into that, because I want to let Ver digest it. I'm sure he'll play with some pitches."