Verlander tries to push the limit
Hurler attempts to join ranks of Clemens, Mussina and Blyleven
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The list included Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and Bert Blyleven. The Tigers hope it will include Justin Verlander.
It was a list of pitchers who threw a heavy workload as young rookies, compiled by pitching coach Chuck Hernandez to counter all the speculation that Verlander was headed for trouble by pitching so many innings so early. Hernandez gave it to him late last season, but its real effect would be seen this spring.
Verlander admits he hit a wall last season, no matter how much he tried to prepare for it. He's now going to try to clear it.
Add up Verlander's regular-season and postseason totals, and he topped 207 innings as a 23-year-old rookie in just his second season of pro ball. It was about more than 60 innings above his previous season total, the kind of jump some coaches warn about.
The list of pitchers who wear down after pitching too many innings at too young an age is well-stocked. But as Hernandez wanted to point out, other pitchers have made the jump and not looked back with regret.
"I think Chuck was worried it was getting to me a little bit mentally," Verlander said Thursday. "He wrote this big chart of pitchers and innings pitched their first year and how they pitched their next year. A lot of guys who pitched a lot of innings their first year went on to have success, but I was only hearing about the guys that had a lot of innings their first year and went in the tank."
Clemens pitched 178 innings between Boston and Triple-A Pawtucket as a 22-year-old in 1984, then after a fallback to 98 1/3 innings the next year, jumped to 254 innings in his breakout 1986 season. Mussina tossed 210 innings between Baltimore and Triple-A Rochester in 1991, also at age 22, then pitched 241 innings with the Orioles the next season.
Blyleven combined at Minnesota and Triple-A Evansville for 218 innings as a 19-year-old in 1970, his first full pro season after the Twins drafted him the previous summer. He topped 275 innings in each of the next six seasons.
Hernandez wasn't trying to say Verlander is the next Clemens or Mussina, nor was he trying to suggest the risk of injury is minimal. The point was that it's not automatic.
"I guess you could say it eased my mind a little bit," Verlander said. "I was tired, there's no doubt about it. But worrying about how many innings I threw that year and the consequences that would have the following year, you don't want to be thinking about. You don't want that going through your mind."
It's not as if the Tigers are oblivious to the fatigue factor. Certainly Verlander knew it as he looked at his radar gun readings through the postseason. His fastball, which was hitting 100 mph when he was firing fastballs by hitters during the regular season, was closer to the lower 90s by October. His breaking stuff had lost a little bite, and he saw his mechanics falling out of sync.
Verlander entered August with 13 wins and a 2.69 ERA, putting him at least in the debate about potential American League Cy Young award candidates. He lost five of his final 11 starts, posted a 5.86 ERA in that stretch, and entered the postseason looking tired.
"I think being that first time, it's like training for a marathon the first time," he said. "No matter how hard you train, you're going to hit a wall. Guys like Kenny [Rogers] and [Jeremy Bonderman], guys that had been through it, they kept telling me, but you have to experience it on your own. No matter how hard I tried in a game, there's that point where I hit a wall."
Verlander felt it when he started the first game of the World Series, and he saw it when he watched his performance on video. Yet he came back in Game 5 to compete in St. Louis before the last of the Tigers' infamous throwing errors doomed him. Despite the loss, it's the game he said he's most proud of when he looks back on the season.
The video work was the closest he came to baseball drills after the season. The Tigers put Verlander on complete rest for all of November, and he said he didn't pick up a baseball until about three weeks ago. He had thrown just a couple of bullpen sessions heading into the first day of formal workouts Friday, less than his fellow rotation members.
Even if Verlander has the pitches to fire away all season, it's no guarantee he'll have the same success. Part of the famed sophomore jinx isn't about health, but about hitters.
"I think it's the adjustments that other teams make off of you, as opposed to me falling apart or whatever," Verlander said. "I think that's the beauty of it. You hear it all the time; it's a game of adjustments. I see what they're going to try to do to me, and I have to change my game plan to them. But we'll see what happens. Hopefully my stuff is good enough to get through some rough spots, like it was last year."
Still, as he heads into Spring Training, Verlander has a completely different mindset than he did last year. He doesn't have to worry about winning a job, and he doesn't have to impress Jim Leyland.
"Last year I had to be pretty much game ready for Spring Training," Verlander said, "and I feel like this year I have the opportunity to use Spring Training for what it's meant for, to build yourself up to be game ready. I only have so many bullets. I'm trying to save as many as I can."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.