Lakeland, Fla. — You’d expect the low point to be when he was designated for assignment in April and all 29 teams passed on him. Or maybe it was when he lost a throw in the lights in Cincinnati and the ball broke his nose. That set him back another 20 days, another minor-league rehab stint.
But that wasn’t the nadir of Drew VerHagen’s sufferings last season.
“To be completely transparent, it was after the Yankees start,” he said.
Oh yes. The Yankees, in VerHagen’s first start after returning from Toledo, pounded him. The scored seven runs off him, six in the fourth inning, bashing three home runs.
“I’d gone down to Triple A and really got my stuff together,” he said. “I’d come back with this renewed confidence and then just to get beat up by the Yankees, that was the point where I kind of just said, ‘Screw it, let’s just see what happens.’
“Things kind of tuned around after that.”
It’s not that VerHagen quit trying. He just quit trying too hard.
“Yeah, obviously that wasn’t working,” he said, with a laugh. “It’s funny, when you are going good, it almost feels like you aren’t trying. It just comes very easily. That’s where I was the second half and I think I learned a lot from that.”
On the day VerHagen got his nose broken in Cincinnati, June 19, his ERA was over 9.0. He came back from the disabled list on July 9. From that point on, the 6-6 Texas-born right-hander may have been the best pitcher in the Tigers bullpen.
In his final 37.2 innings last season, he posted 2.39 ERA, striking out 35 with opponents hitting just .191, with a .272 slugging percentage.
“Last year was an interesting year,” VerHagen said. “If you look at the whole year, I got DFA’d three weeks into the season, did really well in Triple-A, came back up, broke my nose and then I was back in Triple-A rehabbing.
“It was a wild year,” VerHagen said. “But I feel like I got a lot better. Even when things weren’t going my way, I continued focusing on improving every time out, and it ended up really helping me in the second half.”
There was another incident that ended up helping VerHagen turn his season, and career, around. On June 27, while VerHagen was in Toledo rehabbing, the Tigers fired pitched coach Chris Bosio and promoted Rick Anderson to the job.
“I don’t think it was a coincidence that that’s when I took off,” VerHagen said. “Me and Andy work really well together. I think he has a really good eye for it and he’s good at building confidence and encouraging you when you are struggling.
“He’s just a really good pitching coach. He helped a lot.”
Anderson tweaked VerHagen’s mechanics slightly, but the most significant alteration was getting him to abandon the wind-up.
“Yeah, the biggest thing was having one consistent delivery,” VerHagen said. “I started working out of the stretch every pitch. I just have one quick leg kick to the plate instead of a slow leg kick (out of a wind-up) and quick one.”
Commanding his two-seam fastball (94-95 mph), slider (85-88) and curve ball (79-81) mix with precision, VerHagen allowed runs in just two of his final 17 appearances last season. And this spring, he’s picked up where he left off.
He’s allowed one hit and struck out three in two scoreless innings this spring, cementing his role as one of the late-inning relievers in the Tigers’ pen.
“We can pitch him anywhere,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I think he could close out games, we could use him in the eighth, we could extend him two or three innings. His stuff is good enough and he is confident enough now, we could use him just about anywhere we want to.”
VerHagen doesn’t much care about that. He just wants to be part of a lights-out bullpen.
“We are going to be our best if we have (Shane) Greene, Joe (Jimenez), myself and the list goes on — everyone of us at the top of our game. Where ever I fit in, whatever works. I am just excited to be in a good bullpen.”
VerHagen has the look these days of a man at the height of his powers. But he doesn’t see it like that.
“No, I don’t think that at all,” he said. “I’m still improving. I expect a lot out of myself. I expect my stuff and my command to continue to get better.”