'Felt like me': Are Tigers seeing the real Drew VerHagen at last?

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers starter Drew VerHagen struck out a career-high 11 batters in Friday's 9-6 win over the Twins.

Minneapolis — It took him six innings at the start of the season to not only lose his job in the Tigers bullpen, but to lose his spot on the 40-man roster.

In six innings on Friday night against a powerful Minnesota Twins lineup, he may have locked himself back into the club’s plans for 2020.

Such has been the manic big-league journey of right-hander Drew VerHagen.

“He was fantastic,” manager Ron Gardenhire said after VerHagen allowed three runs and struck out a career-high 11. “He’s attacking. He can throw just about any pitch over anytime he wants. He’s got good stuff, firm fastball, he locates and has a good angle being a big man throwing over the top.”

It was the fourth strong outing in a row for VerHagen. In that span he’s allowed six runs in 21 innings, with 21 strikeouts and two walks. Opponents hit .224 off him in those games.

“That was definitely the top,” he said when asked to rate his performance Friday. “I haven’t had that good of a run on starts, but that felt really good. That felt like me.”

It’s been a little hard to figure out who the real Drew VerHagen is. His stuff — the mid-90s four-seam and two-seam fastballs, the biting slider and the 12-to-6 curveball — has always been there. The results, not as much.

This is a guy who has been designated for assignment by the Tigers two straight years and not claimed by any other team. The Tigers took him off the 40-man roster in May after he’d allowed 10 runs, 10 walks and 10 hits in six innings of work.

This after he closed out the final three months of the 2018 season by posting a 2.39 ERA and holding hitters to a .191 average in 27 appearances.

Hard to figure.

“I wouldn’t say it mystifies me or anything like that,” he said. “Honestly, I feel like I’ve thrown the ball really well this year. I had those six innings to start the year — that’s how many innings I pitched (Friday), you know? It was such a small sample size, I feel like.”

It did seem hasty. He had started the season on the injured list with a nerve condition in his shoulder and when he came back in those chilly days of early April, he never quite found his footing. After he cleared waivers, he asked the Tigers if they’d convert him back to a starter if he signed a minor-league deal to stay in the organization.

The starter-strapped Tigers said, yeah, sure. And, like he did last season, he gradually got himself back in form.

“I’ve just been locking myself in mentally and working on fine-tuning my stuff, my mechanics, and my routine,” he said. “It’s been working.”

Through all the ups and downs, hitters still scuffle against his curve and slider. He has a 45-percent strikeout rate with the slider and a 42-percent strikeout rate with the curve. When he’s getting good results, though, it’s because he’s able to command his two fastballs up and down in the strike zone, taking the hitters off his two off-speed pitches.

“Early (Friday) I was using the two-seamer and slider mostly, just mixing in the curve,” he said. “But the curve was working so I started going more to the curve with an elevated (four-seam) heater.”

If he doesn't establish the high fastball, hitters will lay off the curve, which starts on the same plane as his four-seamer. Same with with the slider and the two-seamer. 

He got seven swings and misses and seven called strikes with the slider, five swings and misses and three called strikes with the curve. Two of the runs also came directly off his slider — solo home runs by Miguel Sano and Jake Cave.

“I try not to get affected too much by a couple of mistakes that I make,” he said, which wasn’t always the case for him. “I made a few mistakes and they made me pay for all of them. There were a couple of others I got away with, but I just try to keep making pitches.

“My stuff felt good. My body felt good. I just wanted to keep attacking.”

It’s unclear whether VerHagen will stay in the rotation or go back to piggy-backing on starts with Daniel Norris and Spencer Turnbull, who are dealing with innings restrictions. Regardless, he’s back in the plans — which seemed remote just a few months ago.

“Baseball, a lot of times things are out of your control,” he said. “You can make a really good pitch and they just put one of their best swings of the night on it and you tip your hat. Another time you can make a really bad pitch and they hit it right at the shortstop and everyone’s clapping as you walk off the field.

“I’ve learned to just control what I can control. Just make my pitches and hit my spots.”


Twitter: @cmccosky