Lakeland, Fla. — Justin Verlander seems to be a much healthier person these days, in both body and mind.
He's a full year removed from core muscle surgery and nearly four months removed from one of his worst seasons. He has been able to do his full offseason workout regimen for the first time in two years, has put on some 20 pounds of muscle and, on the eve of his 32nd birthday and 11th spring training as Tiger, seems eager to embark on the next chapter of his career.
During a nearly 20-minute chat with four beat reporters following his workout Wednesday, Verlander touched on a wide array of topics, including his health, his struggles last season, his on-going battle to maintain his dominance into his 30s, the possibility of altering or adding to his pitch repertoire, why he all of a sudden struggled to get right-handed hitters out last season and his assessment of the 2015 Tigers.
Spoiler alert: He believes the smart money is still on the Tigers to win the American League Central.
Question: Pitchers and catchers won't officially report until Thursday, but you've been throwing bullpens for a few weeks now. How have they gone?
Verlander: "They've gone really well. Felt good. Arm feels great. Obviously way ahead of the curve, especially as opposed to last year. But everything seems crisper. It just seems like more quality pitches."
Question: Similar to past springs before the core muscle surgery last year?
Verlander: "I would say so. I think that's fair to say, yeah."
Question: You said you've put on some 20 pounds of muscle. What was the motivation for that?
Verlander: "I just lost a lot of weight last year. I think that was the lightest I had been in years. After surgery I got on the scale and I was like 210. I'm 237 right now. I think I got back up to around 220 during the season, but it's kind of like you're behind the 8-ball. You have surgery and it's like I have to get out there and pitch. I can't really worry about hitting the weight room. I have to do everything I can to be on the mound. Obviously, that's the main focus. This year it's a bit different. I'm able to focus on other things, get my strength back and then get on the mound."
Question: Did you set a particular weight goal?
Verlander: "No, not necessarily. It just kind of happened. I wouldn't say I completely changed my diet. I would say I ate like I normally do and I just hit the gym really hard and the weight just kind of naturally came on, which I think is a good sign.
Question: Now that some time has passed, do you have any different thoughts about what happened last season?
Verlander: "No. I can't say I was hurting besides the noted shoulder soreness issues. But in looking back at it, it just wasn't good. I wasn't right. It wasn't me, and hopefully the work I did this year, not only working out but the physical therapist all offseason, can get me back to where I need to be."
Question: Have you talked with Dave Dombrowski, Jeff Jones or anybody about your pitch mix?
Verlander: "Yes. I've talked with them about it before. I think it's a little unfair to judge on last season. I think it's a different story if I go out there this year and it's the same thing — then definitely there would be some adjusting. And I think I'll start to figure that out pretty early on. But I'm not going to judge changing my entire career based on an injury that plagued me last year. I don't think that's the right way to approach things. I think it's adjust on the fly, see where it takes. I've been tinkering with some things and I can make adjustments if need be."
Question: Any new pitches?
Verlander: "Yeah, maybe. That kind of goes in the same, see where we're at and if I need to make adjustments I will."
Question: This is your 11th major league camp. How have things changed for you?
Verlander: "I guess dramatically. It's hard to say. I don't know what to say. It's like saying, how have you changed from 10 years ago? Everybody matures, everybody changes. I guess the main thing, the easiest thing to point out is comfortability. Just feeling like you belong. It's like the difference between my first All-Star game and my sixth, the difference between feeling like you don't belong and feeling like you do. It's quite dramatic. I guess that's the easiest thing to point to."
Question: You are going to be 32 on Friday. Have you talked with other pitchers who have made the transition into maintaining success into their 30s?
Verlander: "I've chatted with some guys. Some former guys. Obviously I'll always have Kenny Rogers' ear. He's a friend of mine. I think the good thing is, this is a very tight fraternity — baseball — I think if I wanted to reach out to pretty much anybody out there, from guys who did it, I think they'd be open to just chatting. … It's not one of those things where, say, somebody that pitched until they were 40-something and they had a Hall of Fame career, I don't think they're necessarily going to reach out and say. 'Hey, Justin, you need to fix this.' But if I reached out to them. It's like when people say, 'Justin, how do you treat the young guys?' Well, if they have any questions, I'm an open book. If they want to talk to me, that's fine. But I'm not going to go up to them and say, 'Hey, you need to change this.' But if they come to me or if I go to whoever, Smoltz, Clemens, name them, I'm sure that they would be more than willing to sit down and just chat."
Question: Any thoughts on why right-handed hitters had such uncharacteristic success against you last season (.321, .849 OPS vs. career numbers .248, .675)?
Verlander: "I think you look at a couple of my off-speed pitches — my curveball and slider specifically — against righties, neither one of those pitches were good at all last year. They just didn't have the same bite. I've already seen a pretty dramatic difference in my curveball. I haven't thrown any sliders yet, but the curveball seems to be a lot better already than it was at any point last year."
Question: Why the curveball now but not the slider?
Verlander: "Just because the slider's a pretty easy pitch to get a feel for, I think. It's a little harder on your arm, so I just kind of save those bullets."
Question: What the difference in your curveball now, the break?
Question: Can your issues with your off-speed pitches be related to the core muscle recovery?
Verlander: "I think it's a couple of different things. It's some mechanics and it's arm speed and strength, too. I am still tweaking (mechanics) but I do feel I am miles better than where I was."
Question: What is your assessment of this ballclub as we sit here today?
Verlander: "I talked to Alex (Avila) about this and he said he kind of likes being in a position where everybody's not picking us to win the division. We didn't argue about it but we had a conversation. I said, 'Yeah, you know, I think people just like to talk.' ESPN and MLB Network, all the moves in the AL Central, it's something to talk about. It's cool. Look what the Sox did. The Indians are always good. The Royals were the pennant-winners last year. What did the Tigers do, they are aging. But if you had them put a bunch of money on somebody in the division, who do you think they're taking? It's easy to talk about, easy to say, 'Yeah I will take the White Sox.' But if you had to put a bunch of money on it, mortgage the future, I think you have to take us.
Question: So, you like this team.
Verlander: "I still believe we are the team to beat. You look around this (clubhouse), I would take us. Obviously I am a bit biased. But look around this locker room. There is a wealth of talent. I think we have just as good a chance as we've had in the past. Is the division better? Yeah. But I still think we're the best team."
Question: Have any of the new guys caught your eye?
Verlander: "Shane Greene. Watching him throw his bullpen, that was impressive. He's very deceptive, especially from behind. You don't see anything. You don't see the ball. It just kind of pops out from behind his ear."
Question: Have you talked to Max (Scherzer) since he signed with Washington?
Verlander: "No, I haven't. I wish him the best. I wish he was here, sure. But that was his decision. I don't think you can be upset at him. We had a lot of players fight and give up their livelihood to create free agency. Max pays attention to that stuff. He's a numbers guy and he wanted to test the market."