Detroit — You wondered last Thursday, after Justin Verlander said he was “frustrated” following a bad loss to the Twins, if his bosses weren’t more frustrated with their ace.
The answer, as if we didn’t know, came during Monday’s pregame session with Jim Leyland. The skipper’s patience is shrinking.
“We don’t always agree on things,” Leyland said, watching his words, but not backing away from an issue that has bewildered the Tigers for too much of 2013. “All Justin Verlander needs to do is use his stuff and pitch with that arrogance.”
Verlander is 12-9 with a 3.68 ERA. He will start tonight for the Tigers against the A’s in a bid to restore the old gun-’em-down style that won him Cy Young and MVP trophies two years ago, and nearly earned him another Cy Young last season.
Numbers don't lie
This year has been off-key. His ERA is more than a point greater than it was a year or two ago and higher than it has been since 2008. A better measure is WHIP, which stands for walks plus hits per inning. Verlander’s WHIP was a scary-good 0.92 in 2011 and 1.06 in 2012. It stands today at 1.36, which is a number you might expect from a back-end starter.
Verlander has had mechanical hang-ups that seemed to have been solved a few starts ago. A delivery kink had caused him to lose downward bite on his curve, the deadly No. 2 pitch that coupled with his high-90s fastball made him the most dynamic pitcher in baseball.
But his strikeouts are down — he has not hit double-digit K’s since May 27 — and his control too often has not been in the Verlander mode. Unthinkably, if the Tigers were to begin the playoffs today, Verlander’s place in a series rotation would be uncertain and unsettled.
Leyland’s irritation was within bounds Monday and crystal-clear. It isn’t that he has lost faith in his ace. Quite the opposite, he sees at the top of his rotation a thoroughbred who doesn’t need to win trophies but who should be winning more games.
Neither he nor the front office expects Verlander to spin a steady stream of silken games on the level of his 2011 and 2012 mastery. So often during those glitzy days, if Verlander wasn’t carrying a no-hitter into the fifth inning or beyond, fans wanted a ticket refund.
It wasn’t going to continue. But neither, by any measure of Verlander’s skills, does this 2013 campaign quite make sense.
Just not the same
Earlier this season, there was a thought Verlander was adjusting to age. He turned 30 in February and is under contract through at least 2019. He has thrown more pitches than any big-league pitcher the past few seasons and can’t work with the same abandon he knew during his 20s. He is, after all, mortal.
But what frustrates the Tigers — and Verlander — is not age or limitations. It’s that he has had such an uneven season at a point his body is months removed from the 2011-12 Verlander.
It boiled over for all parties last Thursday at Comerica Park.
The Tigers got six runs against the Twins in the rubber game of their series. A first-place team, a championship-bent team, needed to win that game when hitters did their part and their ace was handed the ball.
But it didn’t happen. Verlander allowed 10 hits. He walked three. The Twins socked him for six runs. You could consider it the Tigers’ worst loss of the season because of the competition, the moment, and a six-run Tigers comeback that couldn’t withstand the runs Verlander allowed in his six-inning shift.
Only a few weeks ago, when it was suggested Verlander was now an issue, I dismissed the idea. He was Verlander. He was human. He would straighten out. The stuff, as Leyland repeated Monday, was still there.
But last Thursday’s game was confirmation, apparently not only in this corner, but in others, that the ace has to get his stop-and-start season back to a standard closer to Justin Verlander’s earlier splendor.
If he does — and he could reclaim it as early as tonight — the Tigers and Verlander can deal with an erratic year even superstars come to know.
But he has to get it ironed out. That’s his mission, and it’s uniquely his, if the Tigers are to polish off this season with a division title, win home-field advantage, and unleash their full arsenal against October’s unforgiving playoff lineup.