Tunnel vision keeps Verlander focused
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When Tigers manager Jim Leyland begins listing the things he loves about Justin Verlander, he does not mention a 97-mph fastball.
That knee-buckling curveball never comes up, either. Nor does a slider that splinters bats and breaks spirits.
Verlander also has an above average change-up, pinpoint control and a tremendous competitive fire on the mound if you're keeping score.
There are very few pitchers in baseball who have so many weapons and the confidence to throw them at any point in the count.
And yet when Leyland talks about his ace, he begins with things that have very little to do with talent.
"Tunnel vision," Leyland said.
"He's the best I've ever seen. He's got it down. He doesn't ever deviate. He goes out and takes care of his business, understands what he was to do and is completely focused. That's where Justin has really picked up."
He's at the point in his career where every start is an event. Yes, he's THAT good.
"He's in a different category from the rest of us," Braves starter Tommy Hanson said. "It's almost like he's just cruising, and then he flips a gear when he gets in trouble. I saw him pitch against us (recently), and you could see he struggled a little bit with his command and then he almost got ticked off and was throwing 96-97-98 (mph). You can see his confidence with his body language. He knows he's going to make the pitch he needs to make."
Verlander is coming off one of the best seasons any pitcher has ever had, having led the American League in victories, innings, strikeouts and ERA.
That's a continuation to one of the great runs in history. In the last three seasons, he has gone 61-23 and averaged 238 innings and 246 strikeouts a season.
That's not quite in Sandy Koufax territory, but it puts him in a place few others have ever been.
Verlander made his final start of the spring Saturday afternoon against the Braves and cruised through six innings, allowing one earned run with zero walks and five strikeouts.
He began the afternoon with a 96-mph fastball to Michael Bourn, and when asked if that pitch should be taken as an indicator that he's in regular season mode, Verlander laughed.
"Yeah, that was an accident," he said.
When rains ended the game after six innings, he went to the bullpen and threw another 16 pitches to get him up around 97 as he prepares for Thursday's Opening Day assignment against the Red Sox.
Afterward, he announced his fastball, slider and change-up were all ready for the regular season. He was unhappy enough with his curveball that he focused the bullpen session on it.
"It's been good all spring," he said. "We went down when I threw my last few pitches, made a little bit of an adjustment, shortened up on the front side and it was good."
His teammates appreciate they're part of something special.
"Early in the spring, when he's still working on stuff, it's crazy how good he is," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "He pays so much attention to detail. Throwing in the bullpen, asking about pitches, trying to make everything perfect. It's one of the things that makes him so good."
Verlander had already established himself as one of baseball's best pitchers before he went 24-5 last season and won both the American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Awards.
But he elevated his game even more last summer.
"He talks about it all the time," Avila said. "Last year was the first time he really pitched, put an emphasis on changing speeds, throwing off-speed pitches for strikes instead of trying to overpower guys. Last year was a historic season, and for me to be able to part of that was unbelievable. To be a guy he trusts is definitely a special experience."
Leyland said he's amazed that Verlander has been able to shut out pretty much all outside noise and simply do his job.
"I just think the thing that has impressed me most this particular year is the way he has handled everything, all the accolades and all the attention," he said. "He's one of the biggest names in baseball right now. Handling that is not easy. He has done a terrific job. I'm really proud of him.
"He's not aloof from any teammate. He's one of the guys. He's saying the right things, doing the right things. It's really impressive. That's not easy to do. You're only human. When you get that much attention, it's easy to lose sight of who you really are. This guy has been fantastic. To me, he has learned the final lesson. When you learn how to laugh at yourself, you've probably reached maturity. He's pretty good at that."
Verlander waved off such questions, saying nothing that happened last year was going to make him fundamentally different than the same guy he'd always been.
"There's just that desire to be the best. It is not going to allow me to change my work ethic or anything," he said. "I appreciated (the season) a little bit. In the big scheme of things, that's more something you look back on at the end of your career."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.