Lakeland, Fla. — The great ones find a way to defy the years, defy the accumulation of innings, the wear and tear. The great ones always find a way to get better.
Justin Verlander got more first place votes for the American League Cy Young Award last year than award winner Rick Porcello. No pitcher in the American League was more dominant than he was in the final three and a half months of the season.
So what do you think he focused on during the offseason?
Being better earlier in the season. Naturally.
“I was thinking how do I get better,” he said. “Obviously, the first couple of months. It took until early June to get going and that’s too long. I have to get better earlier on.”
With that as his emphasis, it is noteworthy how well he threw in his spring training debut Saturday against the Astros. He pitched two scoreless innings, 33 pitches. His fastball topped out at 95 mph.
“I’m not going to throw a parade, but it was the best first outing I have seen from Ver,” manager Brad Ausmus said.
Verlander was asked to compare how lively his arm was Saturday to his first spring start last year.
“It’s so hard to compare,” he said. “Man, I can’t even remember — I had to ask (pitching coach Rich) Dubee what time I was supposed to go out there. I had to ask, ‘Hey man, what time do I take the field?’ I do it the same time every year, you’d think I would know.
“I mean, I have this down to a science. I just need to remember the equation.”
He does truly have it down to a science. During the offseason, as he was looking for safe ways to get his arm ready sooner, he talked to trainers, physical therapists, orthopedic surgeons, shoulder specialists, as well as doing his own exhaustive research.
“It’s what I’ve done my whole career,” he said. “I take bits and pieces of stuff and do my own physical research. I’ve been lucky to have a good feel for my own body. I am very self-aware. I’m able to try something, and if it doesn’t work, get rid of it. And if it does work, I implement it in my own way.”
His research led him to incorporating weighted balls and lighter balls into his offseason throwing program. Typically, pitchers will train with weighted balls to build velocity. Verlander incorporated 7-ounce balls and 4-ounce balls essentially to jump-start his arm.
“Just to break in my arm quicker,” he said. “I guess that’s the only way I can say what I was trying to do. The research I did said weighted balls aren’t a bad thing. The more risky one is the lighter balls. I just tailored my own program.”
A couple of weeks before pitchers and catchers reported, Verlander set up a program where he’d throw the 7-ounce ball three times (at 60 feet), then the 4-ounce ball once. He’d do that a few times before picking up the regular five-ounce ball and beginning his normal throwing work.
“You do get an adjustment in your extended rotation quickly,” he said. “That made sense to me.”
Verlander said he never fully accepted that notion that a pitcher’s velocity typically increased later in the summer just because the weather warmed up. His own velocity jumped last season from 91 to 93, hitting 95, in April and May, to sitting at 95 and reaching 97 and 98 in the months after.
He always felt there was a physiological reason for that.
“The way I got on to this, I started working out three weeks after the season,” Verlander said. “I would do heavy squats and then, like a box jump or a bound. Heavy and then explosive. That’s what weight programs have come to — strength and explosive.
“I was thinking, I am training my body, I am training strength. Well, my arm is a muscle. You shouldn’t just cut that off and say, 'I’m going to train here (body) and not there (arm).' That’s what started the process for me.”
While the weighted balls may have helped put life into his arm earlier this season, Verlander still credits the full-body work he put in the previous offseason.
“My emphasis last year was mobility,” he said. “That’s the one thing you lose as you get older. You don’t lose arm strength or quickness. You lose the ability to use it because you don’t have the same mobility you used to have.
“My focus on that last year, I felt, was one of the main reasons why throughout the season I got better and better. And I have stayed on top of that this offseason. That’s probably what led to how I threw today.”
Verlander isn’t sure if he will continue working with the weighted balls now that he’s in his five-day routine.
“It’s sort of a gray area for me,” he said. “I wanted to do it in the spring and get my arm going. But I don’t know whether to implement it now into my five-day stretch. I don’t know if I will. The plan was never to use it in the season. The plan was to give myself a jump-start.”