Verlander continuing to throw high heat
Right-hander's arm important to Tigers down the stretch
CLEVELAND -- One of the many quirks of the Metrodome is that the football play clock above left field serves to show the stadium's radar gun reading during baseball games. It only goes to two digits, being a football play clock and all, so any pitch that hits 100 mph or better shows up as only the final two numbers.
Thus, the reading Justin Verlander put on the board on Saturday was literally off the charts. But that wasn't the only reason it opened eyes. Verlander's 128th and final pitch of his last start, his 3,562nd pitch of the season, hit 101 mph on MLB.com's Gameday application.
The pitch broke Jason Kubel's bat. The ball landed in left field for a bloop single, but that was almost beside the point.
"Verlander," catcher Gerald Laird said at the time, "pitched a Verlander-type game."
Earlier in the year, those games started off with Verlander throwing a little slower before building velocity. Now, when the games mean the most, he starts off throwing hard and stays there. He still isn't slowing down.
In a sport where hard throwers can quickly become cautionary tales, Verlander is a study in sustained velocity -- over the course of an outing, or a full Major League season. As potential postseason opponents watch the American League Central race unfold, including Verlander's meeting with the Indians on Thursday night at Progressive Field, he's the biggest reason why teams might fear the Tigers.
Nobody in the Majors has thrown more pitches this season than Verlander, and it isn't even close. The next-closest arm, Yankees ace and fellow AL Cy Young Award candidate CC Sabathia, entered Wednesday with 3,408. The difference is the equivalent of almost two full starts.
For pitches 95 mph or faster, it's truly not a comparison. Verlander's fastball has averaged 95.6 mph, according to data on fangraphs.com, and has actually gone up since August. In other words, he isn't just staying strong as the game goes on, but as the season goes along.
"He's got a gifted right arm," said Laird, who has been on the receiving end of many of those pitches this year.
It's the same arm Verlander had as a rookie in 2006, the last time fans saw the big righty and his fastball in the postseason. He did not have the arm buildup then, and he ran out of gas down the stretch to the point where his fastball was in the lower 90s during the World Series.
That falloff prompted him to change. He has another postseason berth in sight, but not another dropoff.
"I'm extremely happy about that," Verlander said. "A lot of work and preparation has gone into that. It's not just that I happen to feel good. I think I've been preparing myself for this the past few years, ever since my rookie year."
Verlander calls his rookie season a "warning sign," not just a motivation. If he didn't change his routine between seasons and between starts, he didn't just worry about getting tired down the stretch, but maybe getting hurt.
"I think I heeded the warning sign," Verlander said.
Verlander couldn't do much but rest after his rookie season, but he went about a new routine after 2007. After a disappointing 2008 season that included a drop in his velocity, he changed it again, quite a bit. Verlander liked how he felt, but he didn't like the results.
Verlander goes at his offseason workouts with the same intensity with which he approaches his games.
"He works his tail off," pitching coach Rick Knapp said. "Everybody knows that working isn't the prerequisite for sustaining your stuff, but he doesn't take any chances with that."
Verlander's other big step came about midway through Spring Training, when he lowered his arm slot. It was a big risk that late in camp, with little time to get comfortable with it. Once he did it, however, his arm felt the difference.
For the unnatural motion of throwing a ball, it feels natural enough to Verlander that he can throw all-out time and again.
"Lowering my arm angle just a little bit got me in that natural slot," he said, "so I don't have to fight it. That's the way I naturally release the ball. So for me to repeat my mechanics, as long as my body's working well, it's pretty easy."
How easy is it? When manager Jim Leyland asked him during a recent start if he felt like he had another inning in him, Verlander startled him.
"He actually told me he feels better the next day after 120 [pitches] than he does after throwing 100," Leyland said. "How that is, I have no idea."
Nor does Verlander. He just knows he does.
"I guess this whole year, my body's gotten used to 110, 115," Verlander said. "It just bounces back better."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.