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Verlander getting back in gear

Over the past five seasons, Justin Verlander has won one Cy Young Award, has finished in the top three in voting two other seasons and has a most valuable player award to his name. Now in his eighth full season, Verlander has had just 19 games in his career in which he has allowed at least five earned runs while pitching five or fewer innings. Before Monday, his most recent starts were the 18th and 19th such games, and the first time he pitched back-to-back poor games since his rookie season in 2006.

The term “ace” is one that gets applied to many but truly belongs to just a handful of pitchers. Verlander’s pitching has been elite over the past two seasons: He worked at least six innings in 65 of 67 starts and allowed three or fewer runs in 50 of those 67 games. His ability to reach back for hidden velocity late in games is still something unique to him and remains unbelievable each time he does it. Verlander is one of the finest examples we have in baseball of pitching mechanics; his delivery is nearly textbook in both its simplicity and repeatability.

But 2013 has led some to wonder whether Verlander is beginning to show signs of the extreme workload he has carried in his career, and many eyes were watching his start Monday at home against Pittsburgh.

Heading into Monday’s game, Verlander was aware of what his issues were and what others were saying about him. In his postgame interview after his May 16 start at Texas, Verlander specifically mentioned his fastball velocity and fastball control and his struggles to mesh the two in recent outings.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Verlander’s average pitch-release velocity from 2009 to 2012 was 95 mph, but in 2013, that average has dipped to 92.5 mph. Those concerns persisted despite the fact that Verlander threw 32 fastballs of 96 mph or faster in his two most recent starts before Monday. During that same four-year span, Verlander had thrown strikes with his fastball 69 percent of the time. Over his three most recent outings, that rate had dropped to 61 percent.

Verlander’s three most recent starts had come against two of the better offenses in baseball, Texas and Cleveland. Each has a top-five team OPS in 2013 (both are over .770). Pittsburgh offered a nice change of pace, as its team OPS in 2013 is .706. Despite their 15-7 record in May, the Pirates’ success has mostly been a product of their pitching staff, as their offense has been league average for the month.

Verlander took advantage of the matchup and reminded us once again why he is one of the best pitchers in baseball. He threw 110 pitches, 67 percent of which registered for strikes. He used his fastball 47 times and found the strike zone with it 72 percent of the time. He threw 13 of those fastballs at least 95 mph, maxing out at 97 mph. Verlander had induced just 36 swings-and-misses in his previous three starts, but on Monday, he registered 18, all but one of which came on non-fastballs, on his way to a 13-strikeout performance and his sixth win of the season.

Verlander was keenly aware of what his issues had been in recent weeks, and on Monday, he showed signs of meshing that fastball velocity and fastball control that had mostly been separate in recent weeks. Good for him; bad for the American League Central and the rest of the league.

Jason Collette is a contributor to the SweetSpot network as a regular writer at The Process Report, devoted to all things Tampa Bay Rays-related.