Tigers' Drew VerHagen finally finds key to unlock vast potential

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers reliever Drew VerHagen has turned his career around.

Minneapolis — It’s funny how fortunes can turn when you have nothing left to lose.

Tigers reliever Drew VerHagen couldn’t have sunk much lower, at least in terms of his baseball career, than he was April 23 when the Tigers designated him for assignment.

Except maybe over the following couple of days when the realization hit that not only had the Tigers, the team that drafted him out of Vanderbilt in the fourth round in 2012, bailed on him — but no other team thought enough of him to claim him off waivers.

VerHagen took a couple of days to flush away the hurt and vanquish any trace of self-pity, then went back to work. His contract was outrighted to Triple-A Toledo and he’s managed to bring his status with the Tigers back to where it was coming out of spring training — as one of the main guns in the Tigers’ vastly improved bullpen.

“I don’t know if it was one specific thing,” he said, when asked what sparked his revival. “I just feel like I am a lot more in control of myself out there.”

It’s never been a question of stuff. He possesses a 95-mph sinking fastball, a slider that opponents are hitting just .133 against and a slow curve he can throw either with a sharp break or a with a 12-to-6 break. Opponents are hitting just .206 against that pitch.

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But through April and then again in early June, that plus-stuff wasn’t getting big-league hitters out.

“I’ve always heard from coaches and pitching coaches all through my career, ‘Yeah, your stuff plays,’” said VerHagen, 27. “And I’m thinking, ‘Why isn’t it translating?’ I really think it’s just a matter of being in control.”

There’s a lot that goes into “being in control.” Confidence, complete conviction in every pitch that you throw, a mind-set of "I know this is the right pitch," versus, "I hope this is the right pitch," trusting your ability almost to the point of devaluing the consequences of the pitch. All that plays into being in control and having a positive, even intimidating mound presence.

Which, finally, VerHagen has.

“Confidence is huge,” he said. “In this game especially. It’s funny, if you throw a pitch with all the confidence in the world, a lot of times, even if it’s not the best pitch, the results are better. As opposed to being tentative to the point having doubts in the back of your mind.”

Drew VerHagen struggled mightily early in the season, but has since found his groove.

From July 9 on — after he spent nearly a month on the disabled list after breaking his nose — he’s allowed 10 runs in 35.2 innings over 25 appearances. Opponents are hitting just .200 and slugging .285 against him over that stretch.

He’s improved himself in clutch situations, too, which has been an issue for him throughout his career. In 10 appearances late in close games (as defined by Baseball Reference), opponents are hitting .185 (5 for 27) against him in 31 plate appearances.

With runners in scoring position with two outs, opposing hitters are 3-for-28 with eight strikeouts.

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“Looking at where he was at the beginning to where he’s at today, it’s night and day,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I would use him anywhere. I’d close with him if I had to. I love his stuff, I love the angle of his delivery (downhill).

“He’s really done well for himself.”

The wounds from getting DFA’d and outrighted have healed, but there’s still some scar tissue. There will always be scar tissue from that. So VerHagen isn’t taking anything for granted this off-season. He’s planned a three-week vacation in Europe, but after that, it’s back to Dallas and back to work.

“I feel like now I can go from here (holding his hand at chest level) to here (raising it over his head),” he said.


Twitter: @cmccosky