Justin Verlander is in the position Stephen Strasburg wants to be in some day. The Detroit Tigers — down 3-1 in the ALCS to the Rangers — will give Verlander the ball on Thursday evening with their season on the line. He has become the consensus best pitcher in baseball, the clear Cy Young favorite and possibly the MVP.
Verlander reached his lofty status this season in part because he harnessed his 100-mph fastball and learned how to dial back the velocity, to pitch more with precision than power and to favor quick outs over strikeouts. In his return from Tommy John surgery this year, Strasburg attempted the same conversion. Like Verlander, Strasburg chose to throw his fastball at 95 or 96 mph when he could have thrown 100.
Verlander acknowledged yesterday the process was difficult, that it took several seasons to perfect. He also sees some of himself in Strasburg. Verlander believes that Strasburg is the only pitcher who can match his arsenal of pitches, and that Strasburg is the most similar pitcher in baseball to Verlander at the moment.
“He throws 100 with a hammer and a changeup,” Verlander said Wednesday, during a brief conversation following his news conference. “There’s really nobody else. Comparison-wise, it’s him and I right now.”
Verlander transformed his approach earlier in his career; Strasburg began the same transformation this fall. Verlander is only 27, but he is finishing his sixth season in the majors. Given his immense talent – the 100-mph fastball, hammer and changeup – he experienced surprisingly uneven results through his career. In 2008, he went 11-17 with a 4.84.
Verlander’s monster 2011 season – 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts – came after he mastered the ability to command his fastball, the skill Strasburg emphasized in his return this fall. Verlander peppers the corners of the strike zone by dialing back his velocity early in games. In crucial spots, he will still fire 100-mph heaters. Finding the balance was a mental and physical challenge.
“It’s tough,” Verlander said. “It just took time. When you first get up, it’s kind of hard to believe that at this level you can take 90 percent of your effort and still be very successful. You get so amped for a start an you’re facing the best players in the world. You feel like if you give anything less than 100 percent, you’re going to get your butt kicked.”
Strasburg could probably understand. In his rookie season, he rarely threw his fastball less than 98 or 97 mph. Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty worried at times that Strasburg knew too well how many eyes would glance at the radar-gun reading after each pitch. Already, though, Strasburg has clearly not concerned himself with velocity.
“But over time, just logging innings and tinkering around with that, trying to go easy early on, sometimes it worked,” Verlander said. “Sometimes it didn’t. But this year I just kind of really bought into the fact that I can create a rhythm for myself and be in control of my body better and pound the strike zone early in the games. I went ahead and went with it. The results obviously speak for themselves.”
The Nationals are convinced Strasburg can make the adjustment more quickly. For one thing, Strasburg will be starting the process earlier in his career than Verlander. “If he starts to do it earlier,” McCatty said, “it’s something that’s going to really help him get better.”
The Verlander-Strasburg comparison has been drawn before, and Strasburg chafed at it following his first start back from Tommy John surgery, mainly out of deference.
“I don’t like comparing myself to other any other pitcher,” Strasburg said. “I’m sure he doesn’t like comparing himself to anybody else, either. He’s great at what he does. He’s had an unbelievable year. It’s something that I’m shooting for to do somewhere down the road.”
While the Nationals want Strasburg to replicate the way Verlander changed his velocity, they do not necessarily want him to emulate Verlander. While their stuff is similar, their style is not always the same. Verlander should be an example to learn from, not a template to copy.
“I don’t tell him to use Justin as a guide,” McCatty said. “They’re still different guys. Justin is more moving parts. The thing I want Stephen to take from Verlander is not having to max out all the time. But he doesn’t have to pitch like Verlander. I tell him, ‘Pitch the way you pitch.’
“I don’t want him to be Verlander. I want him to be Stephen.”
McCatty, like Verlander, acknowledged the similarity between the pitchers. “The closest thing to Verlander is Stephen,” McCatty said. “And vice-versa.” They both have one-in-a-million arms, which is what gives them the unique option of picking when to throw their fastball at full effort and when to take something off.
“I feel like I was somebody who was blessed with the ability to do that because I’ve got a pretty good arm,” Verlander said. “My 92 or 93 percent is around that velocity, where some guys that throw that hard, they can’t back down, because then they’re throwing 86, 87. So I feel like I’m one of the few people that’s able to do that more efficiently.”
McCatty has never met or spoken to Verlander, but from afar he can notice that security come through when Verlander pitches. If Verlander has a rough inning or allows a home run, he doesn’t question his pitch selection or stew about throwing 95 when he could have touched 100.
“He’s to the point where it looks like not a lot of stuff bothers him,” McCatty said. “That’s what learning to pitch is.”
Verlander’s most dazzling quality may be his ability to dominate late in games with his best, hardest fastball. Verlander hit 100 mph 15 times in his Game 3 start in in the ALDS, all of them late into his eight-inning start. Verlander may throw 95 in the first, but when the game dictates a big pitch, he can still reach back for 99 or 100. Strasburg could do the same thing.
“If he learns to pace himself,” McCatty said. “There’s no reason why he shouldn’t.”
Strasburg possesses all the potential necessary to become the same kind of pitcher Verlander is, the kind of pitcher the Nationals someday would love to send to the mound in October with their season on the line. The only thing he lacks is the track record, which Verlander achieved only after the fastball transition Strasburg has just begun.
“It’s tough,” Verlander said. “It just took time.”