One great season not enough for Verlander
AL MVP working hard at camp to be better than last year
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The fastballs were flying again for Justin Verlander on Tuesday. So were the self-critiques.
"Fastball feels a little flat," Verlander said to catcher Gerald Laird after one of his 50 or so pitches.
"Did that start looking like a strike?" he asked Laird after another.
"Gosh darn it," Verlander muttered in as many words after another.
Nobody in Tigers camp offers a running commentary on his Spring Training sessions like Verlander. A few pitchers in other camps might, but it's difficult to envision many being as rough on themselves. Verlander was muttering to himself. He was talking back and forth with Laird. He was shaking his head.
In other words, he was back to his normal, perfectionist, hyper-competitive self. He wasn't where he wanted to be with his pitches, but he was back to normal with his personality.
"Not as good as I would like," he said of his session later, "but not as bad either."
This is the side of Verlander that gets lost on a studio set, the side that's so tough on himself. The offseason is over. So, for that matter, is last year.
A year ago around this time, Verlander brought a focus to every pitch he threw in Spring Training, whether it was in a game or off a bullpen mound. He took out all of his frustration from his past early season struggles on his Spring Training opponents.
The approach set him up for one of the most dominant seasons in recent pitching memory. All his success hasn't changed a thing.
"I think his attitude is just tremendous, because he wants it really bad," pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "And it seems to me, just being around him a couple times this spring so far, that he wants it as bad or worse this year than he did last year. And there's something to be said for that, after the year he had.
"Last year, his focus was tremendous, and I see the same thing already this year."
To Verlander, it was never in question.
"You guys know me," he said. "You know how competitive I am. Having one great year isn't going to change anything. If anything, it makes me want to be better. I don't know if I'm going to do that, but I'm going to work my butt off to try. I'm not going to leave anything short, that's for sure.
"It was a great year, yeah, but it was last year. And the ultimate goal wasn't achieved, which is a World Series title."
As important as Prince Fielder's addition could be, it's difficult to see the Tigers winning a World Series without a dominant season from Verlander. He might not duplicate his 2011 numbers, or win the Triple Crown categories, but they need him as the ace.
His importance explains why he became the first starting pitcher in a quarter-century to win AL MVP. Many are also aware of how difficult it is to do that again.
Beyond the awards is a notion that starting pitchers who go deep into the postseason with an immense innings total have challenges the following season.
No pitcher has logged 250 innings in back-to-back regular seasons since Kevin Brown. He pitched 296 1/3 innings between the regular season and playoffs with the Padres in '98, and while he tossed 252 1/3 innings with the same WHIP ratio the next year, his ERA rose while his strikeout rate fell.
The closest to an exception is CC Sabathia. He received extra precautions from the Indians after 256 1/3 innings between the regular season and postseason in 2007, then topped his numbers the next year while pitching for Cleveland and Milwaukee. The performance cemented Sabathia's reputation among the game's most durable pitchers.
Verlander arguably fits the category already. He has led the league in innings pitched and pitches thrown in two of the last three seasons. Moreover, his ability to throw harder toward the end of a game has helped make him so dominant.
That's why, while the Tigers acknowledge the argument on innings pitched, they believe Verlander is an exception. So, too, does Verlander, who is meticulous about his offseason workout programs to build up his arm endurance.
"I want to go deep into the postseason again," he said. "There's stuff to be said about guys going deep into postseasons that throw a lot of pitches and throw a lot of innings and get tired, but there's also the other end of the spectrum, the great ones that don't have that effect. So you can talk about that all you want, but you can also bring up the old-time pitchers, the Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryans, the guys that got better with age and got better after long seasons."
Verlander wants to join that group. Another dominant season would put him well on his way.
"There was a point this offseason where I thought about getting in touch with Roger," he said, "maybe a couple weeks ago, and calling him and maybe see what he did throughout his career, especially as he started getting a little bit older, just to get himself back into Spring Training shape, throwing shape. But I started to feel pretty good, so I didn't call him. But that's a conversation I'd still like to have."
If something gets in his way, it won't be fame. He was visible this offseason, from his January appearance on "Conan" to his image on the cover of the MLB 2K12 video game. Recent commercials on the product included Verlander with Michigan-born supermodel Kate Upton. He even has a cereal, Justin Verlander's Fastball Flakes, on supermarket shelves in Michigan.
Other opportunities, he said, he turned down.
"I kind of felt like I was walking a tightrope," Verlander said. "There's a lot of advantages, opportunities that were presented to me that I could do, such as 'Conan,' or shooting commercials for video games that wouldn't have been afforded to a lot of people, or me earlier. So I wanted to take advantage of some of those opportunities. At the same time, I didn't want to overextend myself and not have time to prepare for what is my job."
He has no such split now. He's back to work, and so is his scowl.