Detroit – Justin Verlander set the tone with the first batter of the game Friday night.
He fed Royals leadoff hitter Whit Merrifield five straight fastballs – each one harder and higher than the last. The first two pitches were balls at 93 mph. Then – 93, 94, 95, at the knees, at the belt and at the letters. Strike one, two and three.
He mixed in a change-up and a slider to the next hitter, Eric Hosmer, but once he got the count to 1-2, he threw a high heater right by him at 96 mph.
With the third hitter, one of his nemeses, Kendrys Morales, Verlander pulled out his secondary pitch de jour Friday night – the change-up. He got ahead of Morales with two fastballs. He missed badly with the next change-up, so badly that Morales no doubt believed he wouldn’t go back to it.
Wrong. Verlander broke off a beauty, an 86 mph change-up that sunk like a two-seam sinker. Morales swung over the top.
Verlander would go on to strike out 10 Royals in seven innings. His fastball, which got up to 99 and was ringing in at 97 as last as the sixth inning, averaged 95. According to ESPN Stats and Research, that was his firmest average fastball in three years.
Sixty-four percent of those fastballs were thrown up in zone and the Royals, a team that hits fastballs at a .315 clip this season, swung and missed at 11 of 17 of those.
“Honestly, it’s been a process for me since being injured trying to get my mechanics back where they need to be,” Verlander said, referencing his core muscle injury and subsequent surgery in 2014. “You saw last year as the season went along, my velo got better and better. This year’s been a similar thing.
“I never lost it. I just wasn’t able to use it.”
In his first three starts, his fastball averaged 92 mph, according to data compiled by Brooks Baseball. It climbed to 93 in the three starts after that and then from May 24 through June 26, he was humming steady at 94 mph.
The velocity fell back to 93 in the start against Tampa Bay, which prompted another mechanical tweak. He lowered his arm slot slightly and the results were immediate. He averaged 95 mph in his start against the Blue Jays and 95.4 against the Royals Friday.
“It’s been coming along since the beginning of the season and that last tweak before the start in Toronto – my velocity was really good in that game,” he said. “It put me in a better position to use my body.”
There was a second consequence of that slight mechanical fix. His secondary pitches have been sharper – especially the change-up, which has always been his fourth pitch of choice.
“We’re trying to utilize that change-up,” catcher James McCann said. “It’s not been a pitch in the past he’s pitched off of. It’s been something he’s had, but he’s been predominantly a fastball, curveball, slider guy. And he’s had a lot of success with it. He’s really throwing it well right now.”
Recently, Verlander is throwing the change-up a little firmer – 86-87 – and getting much more depth on it than in the past. He struck Morales out twice with it.
The slider was good, too. The Royals were 0-for-7 off it.
“His fastball, slider and change-up were outstanding,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “His curve was good, too, but he used it more – instead of a put-away pitch, it was more a pitch to get ahead of hitters. It was easily one of his best outings of the year.”