DETROIT — Justin Verlander is mired in his worst stretch as a major leaguer, a 7.83 ERA over seven starts, during a season in which he’s exhibited the lowest fastball velocity of his career.
He is 31 years old, the age at which many pitchers — in the face of decreased radar-gun readings and increased batter’s-box thwacks — admit their old methods no longer work. They concede that Father Time has won — he’s undefeated, as you know — and make the necessary changes, because being very good (instead of great) is preferable to failing with a dog-eared game plan.
Verlander doesn’t believe he’s arrived at that juncture. And that, by far, was the most important fact to emerge from his latest loss.
"I don’t think I’m there yet," he said after allowing seven earned runs over six innings in an 11-8 defeat to Kansas City on Monday night. "You look at my stuff, and it’s still there. I’m not throwing 100 in the ninth inning right now. But it’s still . . . you look at a bunch of other pitchers in the league . . . and I’m still, stuff-wise, there.
"Maybe, as much as my ball was running today, I’ll become a sinkerballer — just bring that into my next start."
In that moment, a scrum of reporters at his locker, it was difficult to tell whether Verlander was serious. Perhaps he should have been.
Look. I am in no position to offer pitching advice to someone with six All-Star appearances, two no-hitters, and an exquisite Cy Young/MVP season in 2011. But it’s worth noting that Roy Halladay won a Cy Young Award in 2010 with a lower fastball velocity than Verlander has now, thanks to the command and movement on Halladay’s sinker and cutter.
Verlander, after offseason sports hernia surgery, maintained that he’s healthy — and "unequivocally" so, he said, adding that he feels better physically now than he did in April. Is his stuff still good enough for him to win consistently? Absolutely. But is it good enough to win while attacking hitters the way he once did? That’s debatable.
Big innings have vexed Verlander lately; he threw four shutout innings Monday before the Royals scored four runs in the fifth and three more in the sixth. In the past, Verlander might have been able to dial up his fastball and overwhelm the Royals. He can’t do that now, particularly late in games. Particularly up in the strike zone, heaters that once exploded across the plate have become eminently hittable.
Scouts who have watched Verlander wonder if it might be time to borrow a page from Halladay’s since-retired scouting binder: two-seamers down, rather than four-seamers up. But Monday night, at least, Verlander sounded like a man who believes such drastic change in philosophy would be an act of surrender.
Really, we should be able to understand why he feels that way. A year ago, many of us would have said he was the best pitcher in the world. He achieved that status with a powerful repertoire, pristine durability (even as of today, he’s never been on the disabled list in the majors), and singular capacity to increase velocity in the eighth and ninth innings. It’s asking a lot of an athlete to give up what made him great — and extraordinary wealthy. Clearly, Verlander isn’t ready to do that.
But that begs the question: If the most recent stretch hasn’t convinced him otherwise, what possibly could? Barely more than 14 months ago, the Tigers handed Verlander a five-year, $140 million contract extension that won’t begin until next season. With financial stakes that massive, who in the Tigers’ orbit has the clout to pull Verlander aside and tell him that he must do something different on the mound?
Manager Brad Ausmus, in his first season, and pitching coach Jeff Jones are the most obvious candidates. Outside of those two, do the Tigers have a veteran player in their clubhouse capable of pulling aside a proud superstar who’s not used to failure?
When Verlander was mired in a milder slump in the second half of last year, I expressed doubt that he’d be able to recover in time for the postseason. He proved me wrong by making the necessary adjustments, so I’m reluctant to say now that he’s never going to be the same — even though he’s thrown more than 14,000 pitches since the start of 2011 (including playoffs), by far the most in the majors. (Verlander, by the way, said that workload isn’t a factor at all in his recent performance.)
Verlander still possesses the ability to pitch like an ace, but his stubbornness — long one of his greatest characteristics — has prevented him from giving himself the best opportunity. When Verlander makes his next start, Saturday in Cleveland, his team could be in second place. The American League Central title may hinge not on how hard Verlander throws, but how intently he listens.