By: Will Burchfield
Let’s rewind a year, to May 3 to be exact, when Justin Verlander was in the midst of a nightmarish start to the 2016 season.
He had just been clubbed by the Indians to drop his record to 2-3. His ERA had ballooned to 6.49. He was giving up home runs at an alarming rate. Things looked grim.
Not to Verlander. He knew what was wrong and he knew how to fix it.
“I’m going to dominate soon! I’m close,” he memorably declared on Twitter. “Doubt me if you want…We’ll see.”
Whatever adjustment he made after that start versus Cleveland, Verlander was right. From there on out, he was arguably the best pitcher in baseball.
Which brings us to Sunday, to May 14, when Verlander labored through six-plus innings against the Angels in a 4-1 defeat. His problem, as it has been for much of this young season, was command. He issued five walks, bringing his season total to 25 through 48 1/3 innings. His 4.7 BB/9 is by far the highest mark of his career and the fourth worst rate in the majors.
But once again, Verlander is closing in on a solution.
“I gotta cut down on walks, that’s the main thing,” he told reporters afterward. “I gotta find a consistent release point. I looked at some video after I came out, and think I found something that’ll help that.”
Verlander hasn’t carved out a Hall-of-Fame caliber career solely on the strength of his stuff. He has thrived for 13 years because he has the acumen to complement his arm. He knows baseball better than most. He knows himself better than anyone. When things begin to unravel, the 34-year-old has the smarts to figure it out. Don’t be surprised if his latest revelation is the start of another surge.
“I’m not worried about Justin Verlander being able to finish off innings,” Brad Ausmus said on Sunday.
Why should he be? Though it’s been something of an issue through Verlander’s first eight starts, an extension of his inconsistent command, history has shown him to be a step-on-your-throat kind of pitcher. Verlander rarely allows an offense off the mat.
If the veteran’s arm were showing appreciable signs of fatigue, maybe it’d be time for concern. But that’s entirely not the case, the walks notwithstanding. Verlander’s velocity is up significantly and the strikeouts are still coming in droves. He’s averaging 95.3 mph with his fastball, his highest mark since the 2011 season, and racking up 9.1 K/9, his second best rate since 2009. He’s allowed fewer hits than innings pitched in six of his eight starts, including Sunday’s.
Really, the only issue for him thus far has been the walks. With 25, he is tied for the second most in the majors. But Verlander has finished among the top 10 in walks just once in his career (2008, when he finished ninth) and hasn’t finished among the top 20 since 2013. There is little reason to believe this will plague him much longer.
Through eight starts, Verlander is 3-3 with a 4.47 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP. It actually speaks to the rest of his game that these numbers aren’t worse. Verlander has clogged the base paths by handing out walks like free candy, but has otherwise been sharp enough to limit the damage.
“The season has ebbs and flows,” he said on Sunday.
By his own standards, Verlander finds himself in an ebb. Given his history, his smarts and his still-dominant arm, it’s only a matter of time before he turns the tide.