Verlander vows to be 'best pitcher' he can be in 2015
Detroit — Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski got a text message from Justin Verlander prior to the Winter Meetings last week.
"He said, 'I'm totally committed to being the best pitcher I possibly can,'" Dombrowski said. "He said, 'I was not happy with my year last year.'"
Dombrowski's interpretation of that message, though, may be different than what Verlander intended. As he explained it, Dombrowski took that to mean Verlander was ready to commit to changing his style of pitching, to transition away from being a power pitcher.
"Justin may not think this, but I don't think he's going to come out and throw 98-99 miles per hour on a regular basis," Dombrowski said. "But we never thought when we signed him long-term that he would continue to do that. He still throws plenty hard."
Verlander may well be transitioning, but unless he's had a change of heart since the end of the season, he fully expects to regain full velocity on his fastball. He said so after beating the White Sox in his final regular season start in late September.
"I am not 36," he said. "I am still in my young 30s"
According to fangraphs.com, Velander's average fastball velocity has decreased every year since 2011, going from 95 mph, to 94.7, to 94.0 to 93.1 last season. His 159 strikeouts last season were the fewest since 2006.
To Verlander the lower velocity was caused, not by accumulated wear and tear from eight straight seasons of 200-plus innings, but by offseason surgery to repair a core muscle injury that robbed him of his normal strength and conditioning regimen.
He fully believes his fastball can be rejuvenated with a full offseason work regimen, which he has already begun.
"I am stubborn in a good way," Verlander said. "I never give in to anything."
This will be the first year of the five-year, $140 million extension Verlander signed before the 2013 season. He will be 32 in February. It is clearly the beginning of Verlander's second act, but the truth is, even though he hasn't given up on his heater, he's already two years into the transition from power pitcher to complete pitcher.
He's won 28 games the last two seasons, including going 3-1 during the pennant race last September with a 1.154 WHIP and 27 strikeouts, without a power fastball. He has developed an above average breaking ball, changeup and slider.
He has thus far resisted using a two-seam fastball, but that could be the next trick in his arsenal.
"He's kind of made it clear to (pitching coach) Jeff Jones and myself that he's rededicating himself. That's the beginning point," manager Brad Ausmus said. "Most pitchers that are very good pitchers over a long period of time — I'm talking 15 years — you're going to see a degradation of velocity. That's just being a human being.
"These pitchers, they find a way to reinvent themselves. Either they change their style, come up with another pitch or another couple of pitches. And those are the guys who instead of being good for eight years, become good for 15 years."
Ausmus referenced his former teammate Roy Oswalt.
"When Roy Oswalt came up, he was fastball-curveball, and then a couple of years later he had to mix in the slider because big league hitters were adjusting," he said. "Then he added the two seamer, which helped him tremendously.
"Then, after playing with him for six or seven years, I left. He ended up having another couple of years. I thought he was on the downside. He comes up with a change-up and pitches for another couple of years. This is the type of thing that pitchers have to do."
Ausmus and Jones have both talked to Verlander about this, about possibly adding the two-seamer or some other pitch. And they have been met with Verlander's proud stubbornness.
"Justin, and players in general, when they play well and I was the same way — you become stubborn," Ausmus said. "Like, this worked for me, I was an All Star, I won the Cy Young, the MVP. You don't really want to change until at some point a lightbulb goes off and you say to yourself, 'All right, there might be some little adjustment.'"
Ausmus thinks Verlander is at that point.
"I think you'll see it in spring training," he said. "I think Ver's aware of it at this point. And I think you will see that. Because Justin Verlander, this guy wants to continue to be one of the best in the game. He's got a lot of pride when he takes the mound."
Chris McCosky on Twitter @cmccosky