Saturday, May 7, 2011
Verlander's no-hitter shows mature pitcher
By David Schoenfield
When I grow up, I want to be Justin Verlander, firing 100 mph fastballs and 88 mph sliders that break into the dirt and 79 mph curveballs that buckle batters' knees.
Rajai Davis of the Blue Jays didn't really have a chance. He may as well have been up there swinging a matchstick in that final at-bat. After foul-tipping a slider and taking another for a ball, Davis managed to foul off a 99 mph fastball and then -- on Verlander's 106th pitch of the game -- Davis fouled off a 100 mph fastball. What's it like to throw 100 on your 106th pitch of the game? And Verlander, as always, made it look effortless. As Joe Magrane said in the MLB Network studio, he didn't even appear to be sweating.
But Verlander didn't have the no-hitter just yet. Davis waited out a slider way off the plate but was hopeless against one final hard-bending slider, flailing helplessly as Verlander completed the second no-hitter of his career and the second one in the majors this week.
Verlander has been on my mind this week. On the "Baseball Today" podcast Thursday, I asked if he's one of the top-10 starters in the majors. My argument against rests on his never having that lights-out, sub-3.00 ERA season. Since his 2006 rookie season -- in which he pitched the Tigers into the World Series -- there have been 25 seasons in which a pitcher has posted an ERA of 3.00 or less and pitched 200 innings, but none by Verlander. Maybe that standard is too high? If we lower it to 200 innings and a 3.25 ERA or less, we get 54 seasons ... none by Verlander.
Maybe that's nit-picking a little. After all, Verlander has won a lot of games: Since 2006, only Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia have more wins. Only five pitchers have more innings: Halladay, Sabathia, Dan Haren, Felix Hernandez and Bronson Arroyo. But Verlander has had just two top-10 finishes in the AL in ERA (seventh in 2006 and sixth in 2009), and with his electric stuff the expectations are that he should be a top-three Cy Young contender every season.
Maybe 2011 will finally be the year he's not just a contender but the winner. He entered Saturday's game with a 2-3 record and 3.75 ERA but was averaging 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings (the second-best rate of his career) and a career-low 7.1 hits per nine. During a postgame interview on the MLB Network, he talked about how he and Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp had been working on slowing down his delivery a bit, making it a bit more methodical to maintain more consistency and location. He said he actually dialed down his fastball in the early innings against the Blue Jays, throwing 92 to 94, and then bringing more velocity at the end. And nobody maintains his velocity late in a game like Verlander.
That approach showed in the final box score line: Four strikeouts (he had 12 in his previous no-hitter in 2007 against the Brewers) but just 108 pitches thrown and one walk allowed, and that was on a 3-2 fastball just a couple inches off the plate to J.P. Arencibia in the eighth.
Maybe this is the final leap to Cy Young-type greatness that Verlander has finally learned. Take a little off the fastball, locate it better, throw fewer pitches and mix in the slider, curve and changeup ... and then use that 99 mph heater when you most need it.
It's a scary proposition for opposing hitters: Verlander knows exactly what he's doing out there.
Good luck, Kansas City. You're up next.
Follow David on Twitter: @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog: @espn_sweet_spot.