This Tiger Is A Horse

October 22, 2012

Maybe Taco Bell is the secret. That's always Justin Verlander's cuisine of choice the night before he pitches for the Tigers. His order—three crunchy taco supremes, a cheesy gordito crunch and a Mexican pizza, no tomato—never varies, and the level of his performance the next day rarely does either. Verlander throws harder and longer than any pitcher in baseball, which is impressive enough and might make him the most important figure in this year's postseason, but what's more remarkable is that his arm seems immune to such mortal concerns as injury and fatigue.

There isn't much talk of pitch counts or inning limits when Verlander, the reigning AL Cy Young winner and MVP, is on the mound, unless it's to discuss why the most durable pitcher with the heaviest workload is the one who pays the least attention to those sorts of restrictions. He has led the league in innings pitched in three of the last four seasons, including this one; thrown more pitches than any other pitcher (25,247, fully 954 more than runner-up Dan Haren of the Angels) over his seven-season career; and his run of throwing at least 100 pitches per outing ended just last month at 80 games. (Since 2000, the next longest such streak belongs to Seattle's Felix Hernandez, at 32.) Maybe other pitchers should follow Verlander to the fast-food drive-through. "I don't think it's fair to just say 100 or 110 pitches is the limit for everybody," he says. "Some guys can handle more. I've always been the kind of guy who gets stronger as the game goes along."

He has his manager, Jim Leyland, convinced. Leyland allowed Verlander to throw 131 pitches—in his third start of the season, against Kansas City in mid-April. Most managers would sooner try to catch foul tips without a mask than risk having a pitcher throw that many so early in the year. Against the A's in the deciding game of their AL Division Series last week, he had thrown 111 pitches and the Tigers had a 6--0 lead after eight innings. Considering that Verlander had already thrown 2381/3 regular-season innings, you might have expected a reliever to mop up, but his skipper never considered it. "Nah," Leyland said. "He had that complete-game look in his eye."

Why pull a pitcher who never gets tired? Verlander tends to throw harder in the ninth inning than he does in the first. The average speed of his fastball this season was 94.7 mph, and in that 131-pitch outing, his final pitch was a 100 mph fastball that struck out Alex Gordon. Verlander, 29, has never been on the disabled list nor made fewer than 30 starts. In this era of treating pitchers as if their shoulders are made of crystal and their elbows of cotton candy, it's a small miracle that he's been allowed to put such mileage on his arm. Leyland once asked him how many pitches he felt he could safely throw in a game, and he estimated 175. "Just a guess," says Verlander, whose highest total is 133 in Game 5 of the 2011 ALCS against the Rangers. "I don't know what the number is. I only know I haven't reached it yet."

That approach couldn't be more at odds with the current wisdom about how pitchers ought to be treated. Their care and maintenance have come to be governed largely by fear, with teams so afraid of injuries from overuse that they monitor pitches thrown and innings pitched as if they were patients' vital signs in the ICU. This is understandable up to a point because of the investments made in the development of pitchers, but it has led to some awfully timid decision-making. When Washington shut down its healthy No. 1 starter, Stephen Strasburg, for the season in early September, it seemed like a radical move, but in fact it's baseball's new normal. While the Nats kept their horse in the stable and were eliminated by St. Louis, the Tigers rode theirs into the ALCS.

What was once the art of handling pitchers now leans heavily on science. Teams consult kinesiologists, biomechanists, orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists about how to keep their pitchers healthy. Pitching coaches learn about shoulder abduction, pelvis rotation, kinetic chains, torque level, trunk tilt and joint loads. General managers read doctoral dissertations on pitching mechanics, analyze injury histories and factor in anecdotal evidence—all in an effort to avoid the dreaded arm injury.

There's nothing wrong with risk management; Strasburg, after all, is 25 months removed from Tommy John surgery. But it's still satisfying to see a pitcher like Verlander excel in the old-fashioned way, which he insists includes nothing more sophisticated than good mechanics—perfect balance mixed with an economy of movement—and a solid training regimen. Plus a belly full of Mexican fast food. Verlander is lucky to have an old school manager who's willing to let him be a throwback. In that game against Kansas City in April, Leyland admits that when he shook Verlander's hand after the final out the manager said, "You're going to get me fired."

Not likely. The stronger possibility is that Verlander will help Leyland get back to the World Series. All the manager has to do is try not to notice how many pitches Verlander takes to do it, and hope that Taco Bell doesn't change its menu.

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Leyland once asked Verlander how many pitches he could safely throw in a game, and the pitcher guessed 175.

PHOTOJOHN BURGESS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)