Verlander at 30 still a timeless classic
Tigers' ace isn't showing any signs of slowing down
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Justin Verlander's first pitches as a thirtysomething looked much the same as they did when he was in his twenties.
His reactions seemed the same, too -- salty language, irritated looks and all. No matter how old Verlander is, having turned 30 on Wednesday, his vocabulary never includes the words "just getting my work in."
He still expects to be able to drop a curveball on the corner in mid-February, and he'll flash a grimace of agitation if he doesn't execute it right. He still cranks up the velocity on occasion, though not to full game speed. He expects the same execution that propelled him to the top of the Tigers rotation in his mid-20s.
In that sense, his first meeting with hitters this spring looked the same as always.
"It felt good to get back out there and get guys in the box," Verlander said. "Obviously, it was a little different. There were a couple times where I'm like, 'Man, a fastball in would be really good right here.' But you don't want to hit anybody on your team."
He fell to temptation on a fastball or two, much to Ramon Cabrera's chagrin. He didn't hit Cabrera, but he left him without a bat.
Cabrera, the switch-hitting catcher the Tigers acquired for Andy Oliver in December, had just enjoyed a firsthand view of reliever Bruce Rondon's pitches, catching the hard-throwing youngster in his second live batting practice session. As soon as Rondon was finished, Cabrera shed the catching gear, grabbed a bat and stepped into the box against Verlander, who wanted to see a left-handed hitter.
Verlander tried to spot pitches on the corner, getting feedback from his catcher, Alex Avila, along the way. Then he reared back and challenged him.
Cabrera reacted quickly enough to foul the ball back, which was pretty good for a hitter this early in camp. The pitch, however, knocked the bat out of his hands.
Not bad for the old man in the Tigers rotation. For someone who has built his career on numbers, from the velocity on his fastball to the consistent win totals to the strikeouts, age isn't high on that list.
"It doesn't change anything," Verlander said.
His first game of the spring, fittingly, will pair him against a former Cy Young Award winner who has aged gracefully. Roy Halladay has averaged better than 17 wins and 225 innings a year since he turned 30 early in the 2007 season, and he won his second Cy Young Award three years ago at age 33.
Halladay will start for the Phillies when they visit the Tigers Sunday afternoon at Joker Marchant Stadium. Like Verlander, he'll probably pitch just an inning or two. For a brief while, though, it'll be a headline matchup worth watching on a warm Florida afternoon.
Halladay had to remake his game in his 30s as age and his velocity forced him to change. He not only survived, but continued to thrive before struggling in an injury-shortened 2012 season.
Verlander heads into his 30s with 124 wins. Among active players, only CC Sabathia had more heading into his age-30 season with 157 from 2001-10, according to baseball-reference.com. Same goes for strikeouts, though Javier Vazquez could be on the list if he stays active this season.
Someday, if Verlander keeps pitching long enough, he'll have to adjust. With four Major League-worthy pitches and the ability to get outs with any of them when he needs them, he has the repertoire and the command to evolve with age. Consider that until Verlander picked up his first-inning power down the stretch last season, he was pitching effectively with a low- to mid-90s fastball in the early innings and building up as games went on.
He spent a good amount of time working on those secondary pitches Wednesday.
"The changeup especially comes pretty easy to me, as far as offspeed's concerned, but the curveball takes some more work," Verlander said. "I threw a couple good ones out of the stretch."
That time for aging, however, isn't anytime soon. His consistency isn't just in his numbers, but his game. It's also clearly in his expectations. He began throwing again barely a month ago, a reaction to back-to-back seasons with heavy innings workloads.
From an execution standpoint, he doesn't care. He has his standard.
"I feel about the same," Verlander said. "I may be slightly behind just because I started a little later, but as far as where my progression is throwing, where I'm at right now, I feel good."
By feeling good, he doesn't mean feeling happy. His mound reactions don't mature -- a glare there, an inside fastball every so often -- even if he does.