DETROIT — Justin Verlander knows what’s wrong with Justin Verlander.
“Tinkering,” he told me, “is what I would call it.”
Of course. Tinkering.
In his last three starts, Verlander has allowed 16 earned runs over 12-2/3 innings. Fans, scouts and opposing hitters would choose a different participle: Struggling. But Verlander didn’t use that S-word once during a 15-minute conversation Friday — an indication the bizarre May has done little to change his swashbuckling psyche.
Verlander has been the American League’s best starter over the last four-plus seasons. He has the MVP and Cy Young hardware. So great is his talent and swagger that, when on the mound, Verlander regards baserunners as flukes. Hits and walks are against the natural order.
Lately, those offensive accidents have become more numerous. He has a 7.32 ERA in four starts this month.
For this, Verlander offers an explanation I don’t suspect you’d hear from other pitchers: At the end of April, he was 3-2 with a 1.83 ERA. And he decided it was time to make changes.
“I think I had the best April of my career, but I’m always a perfectionist,” the Tigers ace said. “I wanted to be better. So I started tinkering, and I feel like it had the opposite effect.
“I can’t fault myself for getting worse because I tried to get better. It didn’t work, so go back to basics and get to where I need to be. Thankfully, I’m somebody who makes adjustments really quickly. I feel like that could have caused a slump there, too. Because I make adjustments so quickly, I’m able to work on lots of different things at once. That threw me off a little bit.”
Got all that?
Because a 1.83 ERA wasn’t good enough for Verlander, he took his delivery to the pitching mechanic . . . and came back with a 3.66 entering Monday’s start against Pittsburgh.
We sportswriters have Control-Z to save us when our best-intentioned efforts must be undone. Pitchers aren’t so lucky. Tweaking the tweaks — against world-class competition, in front of 40,000 people — is an arduous, frustrating task.
Verlander admits that he undertook the project partially because of his widely-discussed drop in velocity at the beginning of this season. He’s not completely sure why his fastball was off by two or three miles per hour, particularly in his earliest starts.
But he has theories.
“I feel like it had a lot to do with being three weeks behind in spring,” Verlander said of his delayed throwing program because of the 266-2/3 innings he threw last year. “The workload (in 2012) might have had something to do with it. The cold weather might have had something to do with it. It might have been all of the above.
“I wasn’t freaking out about it, especially when I was in the game. But I feel like the process of trying to find out what was a little awry in my mechanics led to (my location) being off. Especially in those two starts [against Cleveland on May 11 and Texas last Sunday] I think I was throwing like 60-percent strikes with my fastball, which isn’t me at all.”
Normally, Verlander’s fastball command is so precise that he keeps it almost exclusively on either corner of the plate. That hasn’t been the case lately. But Verlander believes his last outing — a rain-influenced, five-inning, five-run, 110-pitch effort against Cleveland — was much closer to his ’11 and ’12 self. Right now, he would take that.
“The fastball was up to 99 in Texas and up to 98 in Cleveland,” he said. “So, I don’t (need to) worry about (velocity anymore).”
Amid the uncertainty, Verlander is sure of one thing: His new contract, worth a guaranteed $180 million, isn’t one of those reasons behind the struggling . . . or tinkering.
“Never been an issue,” he said of the new deal, announced near the end of spring training. “I’ve always said nobody can put more pressure on me than me. I put more pressure on myself than anyone possibly can — not bad pressure, but the will to be the best and pressure to succeed. If I was playing for a penny, it wouldn’t change that for me.
“That’s the inner drive some guys have and some guys don’t, what makes some guys elite and other guys not. Take two guys with the same exact stuff, you can write two totally different career paths. That’s all between the ears and in the heart.”
Implicit in that quote, of course, is Verlander’s unchanged belief that he possesses that powerful combination of guts and know-how. This is also a man who’s never been on the disabled list in the major leagues. Asked about his physical health, Verlander replied, “I feel fine.”
Still, the mechanical un-tweaking won’t be complete until Verlander looks like Verlander in a game setting. He was pleased with his consistency in Friday’s bullpen session. And while it’s strange that Verlander’s bullpen sessions have become newsworthy at all, he understands the questions and debate — even while doubting whether a three-start sample would have elicited a similar frenzy in generations gone by.
Remember: San Francisco’s Matt Cain — who started opposite Verlander in last year’s All-Star Game and also pitched through the World Series — stumbled to a 6.49 ERA in April. He has recovered with three quality starts in his last four outings.
“Guys with track records usually find a way,” Verlander said. “Once I find it, it’s going to be really good.”