Tigers' VerHagen no longer constrained by back issues

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Drew VerHagen

Kansas City, Mo. — It’s probably a moot point for now. 

But if the Tigers needed him to, Drew VerHagen believes he is medically fit to be a starting pitcher.

“I honestly don’t think starting would be worse for it anymore,” VerHagen said before the game Wednesday. “I think now that I have identified what was causing the problem, I could probably pitch in any role.”

This is a bit of a revelation. The Tigers drafted VerHagen out of Vanderbilt and envisioned him as a middle of the rotation starter. But he developed back issues in 2013, missed the last two-plus months of the 2014 season and the first two months of last season dealing with it.

The Tigers decided his back could not withstand the rigors of throwing 180-200 innings a season, which would be required of a starting pitcher. An organizational decision was made to transition him to a reliever. 

A couple of things happened since.

One, VerHagen has taken extremely well to the role and is establishing himself as a versatile and reliable piece of the Tigers bullpen. Two, he has both identified and rectified his back issue.

“It was a stress fracture in the L-4 (lumbar region),” he said. “It was something that happened gradually, over time. It was (caused) by a lack of mobility, lack of flexibility — just kind of pounded on that joint over time.”

The diagnosis came soon after he made his big-league debut, a forgettable start against the Indians in July 2014 (three runs, five hits in five innings). He spent the better part of the next 10 months searching for non-surgical ways to alleviate whatever stress his pitching motion was putting on that area of his body.

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“I addressed it, I mean I tried to, after 2014 and I made some progress,” he said. 

But the issue wasn’t fully resolved until this past offseason, when he was introduced to strength and conditioning specialist Eric Cressey, founder of his own sports performance academy in Hudson, Mass., and Jupiter, Fla.

 “I spent the entire offseason working with him,” VerHagen said. “I feel like he was able to identify what I needed to fix and what I needed to strengthen.”

 Cressey, who works with more than 100 baseball players, put VerHagen on an intense strengthening program, targeting core stability, interior core stability, as well as hip mobility and flexibility.

“It was a pretty detailed program but it worked,” VerHagen said. 

He completed the initial program, but he still keeps to a daily regimen. 

“Maintenance,” he said. “I’m not sure how it would feel if I didn’t do that, but I know it feels good when I continue to do the maintenance work.”

Entering play Wednesday, VerHagen has pitched seven innings, more than any other reliever. He’s had some patchy moments. His WHIP is too high (1.86) and opponents are hitting .345 against him. 

But he has one of the best ground ball percentages among relievers (66.7 percent) and a relatively high BPIP (batting average on balls put in play) of .345. Which would indicate he’s had some tough luck.

Regardless, he’s taken to his role — to the point where he now sees the back issue as a blessing in disguise.

“It was,” he said. “It’s given me a routine to where that strengthening routine helped my arm,” he said. “It’s helped everything in my body. I’ve seen an increase in velocity. That’s been a big part of working with Eric. Working with him has strengthened my entire body.”

When he was drafted by the Tigers, he envisioned being in the rotation with Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, taking the ball every five days. Turns out, he likes being available every day better.

“I am really happy with what I’m doing,” he said. “I was a reliever in college and I always enjoyed the role. I get a chance to be in there every day and I like that.”

Twitter @cmccosky