Verlander proves skeptics wrong with stellar season

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Justin Verlander's strikeout rate of 9.63 per nine innings and his 26.6 strikeout percentage are his highest since 2009.

Seattle – If you simply look at Justin Verlander’s numbers, it could be 2009 again, or even 2011.

It’s not an exaggeration.

He went into his start Wednesday against the Mariners having allowed two runs or less in his last seven starts.

His strikeout rate of 9.63 per nine innings and his 26.6 strikeout percentage are his highest since 2009. His 11.8 percent swing-and-miss rate is the highest since 2012. Opponents were hitting .211 off him and his WHIP was 1.05 – both lowest since his MVP and Cy Young Award winning year of 2011.

This is what he kept telling anybody who would listen for the last two years. He was still the same pitcher. He hadn’t lost it. He was just injured.

“I don’t think I’m going to look back and say I told you so,” Verlander said with one of his classic wry grins. “That’s your job to say it for me.”

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He heard all the skeptics say he’d never be a power pitcher again – and yet, he continues to average 94 mph on his fastball, with the ability to crank it up to 96, 97 and even 98 when he needs to.

His spin rate is still among the fastest in the game, which allows him to pitch up in the zone effectively and continue to get a high rate of swings and misses.

And he’s also benefitted from the two years when his velocity was down. It forced him to become more involved in scouting reports and game plans, forced him to rely more on his elite-level secondary pitches, forced him to be a better all-around pitcher.

“I don’t think any player wants to learn what it’s like to play this game hurt,” he said. “Having found out, and having worked through it, I think I am better for it.”

During his struggles in 2014 and especially last season, Verlander was loath to talk about his health. He didn’t want to make excuses. He didn’t want to whine about the rigors of his recovery from core muscle surgery and the subsequent issues with his groin, shoulder and triceps.

All along, though, he held firm to the belief that he was still the same pitcher and would eventually return to his previous level of success once he was healthy – he just wasn’t sure when that would be.

“I was telling you guys the truth when I was telling you how I feel and how I think,” Verlander said. “I whole-heartedly believed I’d be back to being the pitcher I knew was inside me. It was just a matter of health. Unfortunately I had a crash course in these lessons two years ago.”

The most difficult part of the process, Verlander said, was the uncertainty, especially before the core injury was diagnosed.

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“That’s usually overlooked a little bit,” he said. “If nothing’s wrong, then why am I hurting? Why am I not pitching well? If there is a specific injury and something goes wrong – like after 2013 my groin gave out and that showed what I had going on with my core muscle – that was kind of like, ‘Aha! There it is.’

“That gives you something to work towards. You know how to get better and how to get back. From there it’s still uphill, but at least you know where you are at and what you need to do.”

What a correct and definitive diagnosis provided Verlander was a landing point. Instead of feeling adrift, searching for a way to solve a nebulous problem, he had a concrete base from which to work from.

“You have answers,” he said. “I don’t know if a lot of people understand that answers – even if it’s not the answer you want to hear – they are still answers. Why was my shoulder hurting all year? Why was my velo way down? Why am I wild and inconsistent? You are searching for those answers when it’s happening, and then all of a sudden you have the answer and, it’s like, OK, now I know how to work from there.”

In the last 12 months, from Aug. 9, 2015 until Wednesday, Verlander posted a 16-10 record in 34 starts, with a 3.06 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. He struck out 237 in 229.2 innings and opponents hit just .205 against him.

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“I feel good, but I am not really thinking about that,” he said. “It’s my job when I am pitching well to just try and stay in that groove. My work between starts basically consists of trying to stay in rhythm and trying to keep myself where I am.”