So should we still be worried about Justin Verlander?
After two consecutive subpar — some might call them poor — starts, you could feel the panic level rise among Tigers fans. What was wrong with the best pitcher in baseball?
Justin Verlander doesn’t walk five batters in a game. Yet that’s what he did May 11 against the Cleveland Indians.
He certainly doesn’t give up eight runs in a start. Well… Verlander did just that last Thursday (May 16) versus the Texas Rangers, throwing less than three innings in what was supposed to be a pitching duel with Yu Darvish.
Maybe it’s the online contingent of Tigers fans that’s fretting the most.
I’ve made the mistake in the recent past of presuming that what I read from blog comments, Twitter and Facebook indicates what the fanbase at large is feeling. (I don’t really do message boards anymore and since I no longer live in metro Detroit, sports talk radio can be easily avoided.)
So I won’t make a blanket statement. I think Tigers fans are largely pretty rational. (Look at Scott Rogowski being the voice of reason.)
But the vocal minority — if it is a minority — seemed to be freaking out after Detroit lost three of four games last weekend in Texas.
That anxiety was focused individually on Verlander after his previous two starts, when he suddenly didn’t look as invincible as he has during the past two seasons.
Has Verlander’s performance been a concern? Certainly.
But he was so good in 2011 and 2012 that Tigers fans — and baseball fans, in general — expect greatness every single time he takes the mound. Given how great he’s been, maybe that’s not unreasonable.
Yet it’s also not inconceivable that elite pitchers can have bad games. Starting pitchers make 33 to 34 appearances per season. They’re not all going to be stellar.
Having said that, Verlander didn’t necessarily calm these fears down with his effort on Wednesday night against the Indians. He still didn’t look sharp, ultimately allowing five runs and 10 hits in five innings of work.
The initial impulse might be to blame a 62-minute rain delay for Verlander going only five innings. But he’d thrown 100 pitches by that point. He wouldn’t have pitched past the sixth, unless he got by with some quick innings.
However, the Tigers’ ace did rack up nine strikeouts and issued only one walk. So whatever Verlander worked on between starts in bullpen sessions appears to have helped him locate his pitches better.
But back to that rain delay. Again, it was 62 minutes long. Verlander had thrown 100 pitches. The Tigers had a 9-5 lead. Once play resumed, Verlander’s night would be over, right?
Yet Tigers manager Jim Leyland decided to send Verlander back out there to complete the fifth inning, breaking what he said was his personal rule in the process.
The consensus among analysts seemed to be that an hour is as long as you would want a pitcher to go during a rain delay. After that, the arm is no longer warm, no matter how a pitcher tries to stay loose. The risk of injury is considerable. Leyland supposedly agrees with that philosophy.
But the Tigers surely wanted to make the game official, had the umpires opted to call it short due to rain. It’s difficult to believe that making sure Verlander earned the win was any sort of consideration, but perhaps that factored in just a bit. After getting the decision and his fifth victory, Verlander is now 5-4 for the season.
Maybe it’s that Leyland trusts Verlander. If Verlander said he still felt good and could pitch, Leyland would let him. Besides, the time span was close enough to the one-hour limit that it didn’t seem like a stretch.
Leyland told reporters after the game that breaking his rule for Verlander was “a reward” for all of the ace’s hard work and success.
But was sending his pitcher out there after an hour delay worth the risk of possible injury? There were already rumblings that Verlander was struggling because he was hurt. Even if he wasn’t — and his problems were solely mechanical — why take the chance that the Tigers’ No. 1 arm could get hurt?
Perhaps that’s an overreaction as well. Verlander needed only 10 pitches to finish off Mark Reynolds and Ryan Raburn, complete the inning and put the game in the books. Leyland knew the risks, but knew his player well enough that he was willing to bend his rule. He probably wouldn’t have done it for any other pitcher in his rotation.
At the time, I thought it was something of a desperate move. This wasn’t a must-win game, but maybe Leyland felt like his team really needed to finish a two-game sweep against the team ahead of them in the AL Central and coming off a series loss at Texas.
Or maybe he just needed to give Verlander an opportunity to get back some confidence after recent uncharacteristic struggles. If that was the objective, it appears to have worked.