Star hurlers unhindered by impact of workload
Verlander, Kershaw among those who thrive late in season despite high pitch totals
Justin Verlander is becoming the Nolan Ryan of his generation, his strength and durability every bit as impressive as his lights-out stuff featuring a heater that stays in the upper 90s in the late innings.
Over the past five seasons, the Detroit gunslinger has thrown a whopping 1,514 more pitches than runner-up Felix Hernandez and 2,709 more than Max Scherzer, Verlander's teammate in the brilliant Tigers rotation.
While Scherzer was storming his way to the 2013 American League Cy Young Award, going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA, Verlander experienced a relatively ordinary 13-12, 3.46 campaign at age 30. His 218 1/3 innings were his fewest since 2008, but that was still four more than Scherzer, who surpassed 200 for the first time in his career.
Clearly determined to blow away any notions of decline, Verlander reached back and found his old magic in the postseason. In three starts against the Athletics and Red Sox, he was touched for just one run in 23 innings, striking out 31 while allowing only three walks and 10 hits.
"I'm pitching the way I'm supposed to," he said, having dispatched the AL West-champion A's in the decisive Game 5 of the Division Series in Oakland. "I worked my butt off all year to try to get consistent and get myself where I needed to be. I feel like it finally paid off at the end of the year [with 12 scoreless innings in his final two outings].
MOST PITCHES IN 2013
|Justin Verlander, Tigers||3,692||108.6|
|James Shields, Royals||3,657||107.6|
|C.J. Wilson, Angels||3,651||110.6|
|Jon Lester, Red Sox||3,557||107.8|
|Adam Wainwright, Cardinals||3,533||103.9|
|R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays||3,505||103.1|
|Chris Tillman, Orioles||3,477||105.4|
|Jeff Samardzija, Cubs||3,462||104.9|
|Yu Darvish, Rangers||3,451||107.8|
|Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers||3,428||103.9|
"It wasn't easy for me. It was a battle all year long. But I felt like I was finally able to make a couple of adjustments and get myself to be more consistent."
The Tigers' season ended quietly, at the hands of Boston in the AL Championship Series, and changes were in the wind, sweeping Prince Fielder to Texas. But Detroit fans can approach 2014 with the assurance that Verlander is back in prime-time form, in the company of the game's elite.
The intense focus in this new metrics age on pitchers' workloads raised natural questions about Verlander. Did those 19,084 regular-season pitches unleashed over the past five seasons exact a heavy toll on him? His 112.9 per-game average over that period is more than six pitches higher than anyone else.
Standing right next to him, in contrast, was Scherzer, whose arm has not been exposed to nearly as much stress as that of the Tigers' 2011 AL Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner. Scherzer also delivered in the postseason, winning twice while holding opponents to seven earned runs in 22 1/3 innings over three starts. Detroit's demise was rooted in an offense that fell silent.
While his regular-season record was uncharacteristically pedestrian, a closer look shows that Verlander actually was a better pitcher after the All-Star break in going 3-6 than he'd been while claiming 10 of 16 decisions before intermission. His ERA was lower (3.41 to 3.50) and so were his WHIP (walks and hits per inning) and other secondary numbers.
Clayton Kershaw, who was one vote shy of being a unanimous National League Cy Young Award winner, consistently has argued with his performance against the premise that heavy workloads diminish pitchers over the course of a season.
Since breaking in as a full-service starter for the Dodgers at age 21 in 2009, Kershaw has had a better ERA in the second half each year.
In 2013, Kershaw was 8-6 with a 1.98 ERA before the All-Star break and 8-3, 1.59 after the break. The difference was precision, evidenced by his strikeouts-to-walks ratio: 3.97 before the break, 5.47 after the break.
Devil's advocates will point out how Kershaw yielded seven runs in four innings in the decisive Game 6 of the NLCS in St. Louis. That by all accounts was an aberration. The Redbirds started rolling that cold night in the heartland and could not be contained.
Verlander has been there: 10 runs allowed in 11 innings of the 2006 World Series against the Cards, seven runs in 11 1/3 innings vs. the Rangers in the 2011 ALCS. Scherzer was pounded for nine runs in 8 1/3 innings by the Rangers in that series.
"I just didn't pitch good," Kershaw said of his not-so-grand finale to a phenomenal season. "I don't have an answer. I just wasn't good enough."
This is a guy who, during his first Cy Young Award-winning season in 2011, was 12-1 with a 1.31 ERA after the All-Star break. Turning 26 on March 19, he's just moving into what are generally considered an athlete's prime years.
Kershaw over the past five seasons ranks seventh in total pitches thrown, behind Verlander, Hernandez, James Shields, CC Sabathia, Tim Lincecum and Jon Lester. Only Verlander, Shields, C.J. Wilson and Hernandez have delivered more pitches the over past four seasons than Kershaw.
Since 2001, when he debuted with the Indians at 20, Sabathia has been the game's most durable starter with 43,418 pitches thrown, followed by Mark Buehrle and Barry Zito.
In his twin NL Cy Young seasons of 2008 and 2009, the Giants' Lincecum was basically the same dominant pitcher from start to finish. His ERAs were slightly higher in the second halves but with a lower WHIP.
If there's a red flag attached to Lincecum, who has struggled the past three years to recapture his form, it perhaps can be found in his league-leading strikeout totals at ages 24, 25 and 26, from 2008-10.
For a guy carrying 170 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame, throwing in the upper 90s with a complex delivery had to stress his arm severely at times.
Kershaw has led the NL in strikeouts two of the past three years while leading in ERA each season. He's bigger and stronger than Lincecum, throws in the low 90s with killer breaking stuff, and doesn't figure to see a noticeable decline in velocity, as "The Freak" did. Scherzer, like Kershaw, is a powerfully built 6-3. Turning 30 in July, Scherzer has the look of a guy who will hold up well down the road.
The Dodgers, with Kershaw, and the Tigers, with Scherzer, are weighing every factor carefully in evaluating contract extensions with these rare talents.
Verlander, 31 in February, set the bar exceptionally high with his seven-year, $180 million deal with a $22 million vesting option for 2020 if he finishes in the top five in the 2019 Cy Young balloting.
While the Dodgers appear ready to substantially exceed that contract with Kershaw, the Tigers are in a different position with Scherzer, giving rise to speculation that he could be dealt at peak value.
Miguel Cabrera's contract expires after the 2015 season. Position players -- especially ones with Triple Crowns on their resume -- traditionally are considered safer long-term investments than pitchers. The golf courses are full of former pitchers who couldn't justify their megadeals.
But there are exceptions. Nolan Ryan, a fitness devotee who focused on his lower body, still was throwing in the 90s in his 40s. After he won his 300th game, The Express met the media while riding his exercise bike. No joke. Ryan logged as many miles over his career as Kenyan marathoners.
There might be a message there for those aspiring to enduring greatness on the mound.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.