Verlander rises to top with complete package
SAN FRANCISCO -- To understand why Justin Verlander is the best pitcher on earth, let's check in with some of the people who know him best.
Unhittable stuff? Try uncatchable.
"He throws a true curveball, but the thing is, he throws it much harder than most curves," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "He throws it at times 80, 81, 82 mph. A lot of guys are throwing their slider at that speed."
"It's got a really big break to it. Sometimes it's really hard to judge and react to. It took me a while to get a gauge of how it comes out of his hand and when I need to catch it or block it."
So if a pitcher's stuff is so dazzling that his catchers have trouble getting a glove on it, what chance does a hitter have?
"He also has a great idea what he wants to do," Tigers backup catcher Gerald Laird said. "He has confidence in all four pitches."
Verlander made his reputation by throwing a 100-mph fastball, which is the basis for everything he does. These days, he's way more than that. His curveball is also one of the best pitches in the game, and he has long trusted his changeup.
This season, he added a twist, throwing a slider 11.9 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs.com. That's a pitch he was barely throwing only a couple of years ago.
There are days when he'll throw consecutive pitches clocked at 99, 77, 86 mph. Poof, there goes a hitter's timing.
"All his pitches are electric," Laird said. "His stuff is so good he can almost throw anything at any time. When you have stuff like his, he can throw what he wants. If he executes it, it's still tough to hit."
As a result of those other pitches, Verlander is throwing fewer fastballs, from 67.9 percent in 2009 to 55.9 percent this season, according to Fangraphs.com.
Hitters must respect Verlander's power stuff, but it's made even better because he has other options.
Two other factors come into play. One is Verlander's poise.
"Little things don't get to him anymore," Laird said. "He knows what he wants to accomplish. An umpire's missed call or a misplay used to get him out of his rhythm. Now, nothing bothers him. He's got one idea in his head, and that's to dominate. Nothing fazes him. When men get on base, he gets tougher. As the game goes on, he gets even better."
And there's his preparation, both physical and mental. Tigers manager Jim Leyland said he has never been around a player "with more tunnel vision" in terms of getting his work done. He was once so locked in for a start that he shook off the catcher's first pitch of the game.
"He has evolved from a thrower into a pitcher," Avila said.
In the last four seasons, Verlander is 78-31 with a 2.95 ERA during the regular season. He has averaged 238 innings and 244 strikeouts a season. This postseason, he's 3-0 with a 0.74 ERA. He has 25 strikeouts and five walks in 24 1/3 innings.
"He works very quickly," Laird said. "One thing I try to do is not slow him down and get him out of his rhythm."
Leyland has talked of Verlander's "complete-game look" in his eyes. His teammates know it well. When Verlander shows up for Game 1 of the World Series at AT&T Park on Wednesday, the guys will give him his space.
"When he's pitching, you know not to mess with him," Avila said. "He comes in and has his music going and his headphones on. He's got his routine for everything from the night before he pitches [a trip to Taco Bell] until he gets out there. He's very regimented. Once he gets out there, he plans on pitching nine innings."
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.