By: Will Burchfield
It’s no secret that Justin Verlander has struggled in his career versus the Indians, particularly at Progressive Field.
The unknown is why.
After the Tigers ace was battered for nine runs over four innings on Friday night in Cleveland, catcher James McCann suggested the Indians could have been stealing signs or Verlander could have been tipping his pitches.
“He had some of his best stuff he’s had all year and sure didn’t look like it the way they were taking their swings,” said McCann, via the Free Press. “He had his best slider he’s had all year. His curveball was good. His fastball – shoot, some of the fastballs they hit for home runs were 96 miles an hour up in the zone and in. It’s not easy to pull it the way they were pulling it.”
The Indians took Verlander deep three times on Friday, continuing a trend. Verlander has given up 36 homers to Cleveland in his career, the second most against any opponent. 22 of those have come at Progressive Field, the most he has surrendered at any stadium not named Comerica Park.
“I guess the numbers speak for themselves,” McCann said, before adding later, “Maybe we gotta tip our caps. Who knows? But it doesn’t mean we’re going to stop trying to figure out what’s going on.
Manager Brad Ausmus sat down with Verlander on Sunday to review film of the pitcher’s latest start, and told reporters, “I’m not going to tell you if I found anything.” Asked, however, if it was possible that Verlander was tipping his pitches, Ausmus said, “Could be. Hitters are always trying to find an edge on pitchers and looking for a pitcher tipping is standard operating procedure. I can’t tell if it is or isn’t. Only the Indians can tell you that and they probably won’t.”
When Indians manager Terry Francona was presented with this theory on Sunday, he told MLB.com,“It’s hard for me to respond to that completely. I get your point, but I wasn’t there. Going through a third party, I’m not really sure quite what was said or how it was said. I think in our game it’s probably human nature…The object of the game is to have your guys know the signs and have the other team not. With all the technology, that can get more difficult, just like a lot of other stuff.”
Francona also pointed out that, pitch-tipping or not, Verlander made things easier than usual for the Indians hitters on Friday night.
“He left some pitches up. If he doesn’t do that, we’re probably not having this conversation,” said Francona.
Still, the numbers are alarming.
In 49 career stars versus Cleveland, Verlander is 19-22 – the most losses he has suffered against any opponent – with a 4.68 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP. Since the 2014 season, he is 2-8 in 14 starts with a 5.48 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP.
In 27 career starts at Progressive Field, Verlander is 9-15 – the most losses he has suffered anywhere besides Comerica Park – with a 5.72 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP. Since the 2014 season, he is 0-5 in seven starts with a 7.13 ERA and a 1.58 WHIP.
McCann’s words bear repeating: “The numbers speak for themselves.”
Given the complexity of the signs the Tigers used on Friday night, even with nobody on base, McCann felt sign-stealing was too simple of an explanation for the Indians’ success.
“It’s got to be something beyond that,” he said. “We’ve kind of exhausted that side of it. Cleveland’s not the only team we do that with. There’s numerous teams that we take extra precautions with our signs. I wouldn’t say it’s anything to do with that.”
If it’s the Tigers who are at fault in giving signs away, McCann said, they better clean it up.
“(If) a pitcher’s tipping his pitches, a pitcher’s showing the runner at second out of his glove what he’s throwing and the guy on second is relaying it, it’s nobody’s fault but the person who’s giving it away. And that’s something we as a team do everything we can to prevent from happening,” said McCann.