A fast start is essential for the Detroit Tigers.
And for Justin Verlander.
This season is nothing but a race against the trading deadline. If the Tigers start slowly and fall back in the standings, who knows who might get traded before the July 31 deadline. So it’s crucial for the Tigers to get off to a good start if they want to keep this team together and play meaningful games in the fall.
And it starts with Verlander, the starter for Monday's season opener in Chicago against the White Sox (4:10 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit).
He tweaked his training routine this year, trying to ready his arm and prevent another slow start to the season.
“If you look at the best years of my career, April is my worst month,” Verlander said during spring training in Lakeland, Fla. “That never had to do with stuff. It had to do with getting into midseason form.”
Verlander approaches his body scientifically, like an engineer tweaking parts on a vehicle.
At times, he's like a heavy-duty truck. Verlander has started 352 games for the Tigers over the last 12 seasons, pitching 2,339 innings and winning 173 games, inching toward the Hall of Fame.
At other times, he's like an exotic sports car, a finely tuned, custom-built vehicle that has won an MVP and a Cy Young Award.
About three weeks after last season ended, Verlander started working out so that he would be ready for Opening Day.
“I started getting into heavy squats,” Verlander said. “I’d do a heavy squat and then I’d do a box jump or a bound.”
He did it over and over.
“That’s what weighted programs have come to,” Verlander said. “You train for strength and then you train to use the explosiveness.”
Verlander thought back to 2016. It gnawed at him how he had started off slowly, struggling with a 2-4 record with a 4.71 ERA in his first eight starts.
“One of the glaring things of last year was the first couple of months,” Verlander said. “How do I get better? Well, I need to be better early on.”
How could he improve? How do you teach an old pitcher new tricks?
“I’m sitting there, training my body, training strength — well, this is the same thing,” he said, looking at his right arm. “My arm is muscle. It’s the same as everything else.”
That thought changed everything.
“You shouldn’t just cut this off,” he said, looking at his right arm, “and say I’m going to train all of this (his body) and not this (his arm). So that is what kind of started that process for me, and I started doing some research into it.”
Verlander went to the people he always has tried to avoid.
He went to some arm surgeons for advice.
That’s like going to the mechanic before your car breaks down. Call it preventive maintenance.
“You end up talking to the people who would end up cutting you up if you are not doing well,” Verlander said.
After the research, Verlander started training with a heavier ball.
A Major League baseball weighs between 5 and 5¼ ounces, and he started throwing a ball that weighs about 2 ounces more. That might not sound like a lot. But it was a significant change.
Get Verlander talking about training with a heavy ball, and it sounds like a science class, as he starts saying “external rotation” and “neuromuscular system” and “kinetic chain.”
Suffice it to say, he feels confident in his new approach.
“I’ve been very lucky to have a very good feel for my body my whole career,” he said. “I’m very self-aware. I’ve been able to try something and if it doesn’t work, get rid of it. This is one of those things where I’m kind of dipping my toe in the water.”
Verlander has been tweaking his training routine for years.
He started working on his mobility, going to a physical therapist after having core surgery in 2014, because, as he said, “my arm was killing me.”
“It takes a lot for guys to get out of the ordinary,” he said. “If you are used to being great and you are not, you are going to try to find a way to be great again. If you are used to throwing hard and you are suddenly not throwing hard, you are going to try to find a way to throw hard again.”
Verlander feels that mobility training helped him last season.
“I felt like that was one of the main reasons why it was getting better and better,” he said. “I felt like that was coming into my body and I was able to utilize it the way I would like.”
It’s a race against a clock.
Trying to improve. Needing to get off to a fast start.
With that trade deadline looming in the distance.
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