Commentary

Pitching suddenly Detroit's top asset

Porcello, Verlander and Jackson leading an arms revival for AL Central-leading Tigers

Originally Published: June 2, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Rick PorcelloMark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesRick Porcello, 20, was 5-0 with a 1.50 ERA in his five starts in May.
Tigers outfielder Curtis Granderson sees an intriguing meteorological phenomenon at work during 7:05 p.m. starts at Comerica Park. For the first 30 minutes or so, the sun casts shadows across the infield while a simultaneous glare in center field reflects off the batter's eye. It's a double whammy for hitters.

There's an additional cruel twist when Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson are pitching for the Tigers. Detroit's two "horses," as Hall of Famer Al Kaline calls them, typically throw 92-93 mph at the outset and ratchet up the velocity as the game progresses.

So here's how it works: In the first two innings, opposing hitters can't see the ball. Starting around the third inning, they can see the ball fine. They're just hard-pressed to catch up to it.

"When it's overcast, the hitters are OK," Granderson said. "But when it's sunny out, those first two innings are gonna go by real quick."

It remains to be seen how far the Tigers can ride their new pitching-and-defense-oriented mindset this season. But for the short term, they're doing their best to dispel the notion that corporate entities in Detroit are too set in their ways to embrace change.

Think back to spring training of 2008, when lots of observers figured the Tigers would waltz to a division title and score 900-plus runs. That was a natural assumption after general manager David Dombrowski added Miguel Cabrera to a lineup that already included Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Gary Sheffield and Granderson, among others.

As it turns out, the Tigers scored a respectable 821 runs, but they were done in by an injury-riddled and ineffective pitching staff. The team looked in every conceivable corner for help, only to discover that Freddy Garcia, Chris Lambert, Yorman Bazardo and Eddie Bonine weren't the answer.

In hindsight, maybe all the Tigers needed was a flip of the calendar. Thanks to some new faces here and a little tinkering there, they've reinvented themselves on the fly.

Entering a three-game series with Boston on Tuesday night, Detroit leads the American League with a 3.87 ERA. Among qualified starting pitchers, Verlander is averaging an AL-best 11.68 strikeouts per nine innings. Jackson ranks second in the league to Kansas City's Zack Greinke with a 2.30 ERA, and Rick Porcello, two years removed from Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey, is 6-3 with a 3.48 ERA and has assumed the pole position in the AL Rookie of the Year race.

The above threesome posted a 14-2 record in May. That win total was the highest for a trio of Detroit pitchers since 1993, when Bill Gullickson, Mike Moore and career fringe guy Tom Bolton combined for 14 victories in August.

Factor in an MVP-caliber start by Cabrera, a defense fortified by the addition of shortstop Adam Everett and outfielder Josh Anderson and the shift of Brandon Inge to third base, and a bullpen strengthened by the arrival of rookie Ryan Perry and a return to full health by Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney, and it's no accident that Detroit has the second-best run differential in baseball and leads the American League Central with a 28-21 record.

Simply put, the Tigers are no fun to hit against -- particularly at the front end of the rotation or the back end of the 'pen. According to the FanGraphs Web site, Verlander leads all big league starters with an average fastball velocity of 95.5 mph, and Jackson ranks fourth at 94.5.

"I went out one game and hit 100, and the very next game Edwin goes out there and hits 100," Verlander said. "I don't know how many rotations you can say that about in this league."

Verlander, the second overall pick in the 2004 draft, was cleared for takeoff in 2007, when he won 18 games and threw a no-hitter against Milwaukee. But his mechanics got out of whack last season, and even though he discussed the problem with former pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, he was disinclined to make radical changes in midseason.

The big issue: Verlander had gradually raised his arm angle to the extent that his velocity suffered, his pitches flattened out and he lost the late life on his fastball. When he tried to "muscle up" and throw the ball harder, things only got worse. He began flying open in his delivery and experiencing a whole new set of issues.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
G Fiume/Getty ImagesJustin Verlander is 6-0 with a 1.30 ERA in his last seven starts.

"I'm not stupid," Verlander said. "I can see that I'm not throwing the way I should be based on my effort level. The first thing you do is try to 'create' velocity, but that's the wrong way to do it. It compounds everything."

New pitching coach Rick Knapp noticed that Verlander looked "rigid" in his delivery and suggested lowering the arm slot. For the first two weeks, Verlander recalls, he felt as if he were "throwing sidearm." Then he got cuffed around in April, and it didn't inspire much faith that he was on the right track.

But something clicked after Verlander was shelled in a 12-10 loss to the Angels on April 22. He's 6-0 with a 1.30 ERA in seven starts since.

"You know the look that [Jonathan] Papelbon has when he comes on in the ninth inning?" Knapp said. "That's the way Justin looks every inning. He's got that 'no score mentality' look in his eye."

Jackson, 25, seemed ready for a breakthrough with his strong start in Tampa Bay last year. But he slumped to a 5.16 ERA after the All-Star break and in the postseason pitched only 4 1/3 innings of relief. In December, the Rays traded Jackson to Detroit for outfielder Matt Joyce in a deal that now has "heist" written all over it.

Is Jackson simply teasing the Tigers with this dominant stretch, or has he finally turned the corner? His 3.17 strikeout-walk ratio suggests the latter.

"As you mature as a pitcher, you start to figure things out," Knapp said. "One of the things Edwin has figured out is, 'Wow, my stuff is really good if I throw it over.'"

Jackson's metamorphosis into budding star is a family affair. Knapp flashes back to a Grapefruit League game in Dunedin, Fla., this spring when Jackson's mother, Regina, sat behind the Tigers' bench and spent the entire outing exhorting her son from the stands.

"She was right in my earhole yelling, 'Don't give 'em nothing, Eddie! Make 'em swing, Eddie! Throw strikes, Eddie!'" Knapp said. "I couldn't have said it any better myself.

"After that start I asked Edwin, 'What did your mother say?' He told me, 'Throw strikes.' I said, 'That's good enough for me. Listen to your mother.'"

Knapp, 47, replaced Hernandez as Detroit pitching coach in October after 12 seasons as Minnesota's minor league pitching coordinator. Although the Twins are renowned for indoctrinating their young pitchers in the art of throwing strikes, Knapp is fully aware that there's more to the process than simply aiming pitchers toward the plate and telling them, "Don't walk people."

In Detroit, Knapp constantly encourages his pitchers to change speeds with their fastballs and develop movement in what he calls the "visual hitting lane." Knapp has a real gift for simplifying things to make his point, whether he's comparing a pitcher's delivery to a golf swing or a bowler trying to roll strikes.

Porcello, the rookie phenom, has both the intelligence and aptitude to learn quickly. He can ride a four-seam fastball up in the zone at 94 mph, and he'll complement it with a changeup, an evolving breaking pitch and an 88 mph two-seamer that induces lots of ground balls. Porcello's 1.22 ground ball-fly ball ratio is the best on the staff.

Anytime a ball is hit to Everett or Inge, it's a good thing. And by pitching to contact, Porcello has been economical with his workload. He's thrown between 75 and 95 pitches in his first nine starts, and the Tigers plan to keep it that way. Manager Jim Leyland won't rule out backing off Porcello or skipping him a start or two later in the season to protect his arm.

"People don't realize that 85 pitches in the big leagues is a lot more difficult than 85 pitches in A-ball," Leyland said. "So we're watching him real close. I'm not going to get greedy with him."

Even Kaline, who made his big league debut at age 18 and won a batting title at 20, is blown away by Porcello's seemingly effortless transition to the majors.

"What can you say about a 20-year-old kid who's doing what he's doing?" Kaline said. "He's so mature, he doesn't get flustered. He's doing an amazing job, and he's still learning."

Some pieces still need to fall in place for the Detroit rotation to be solid top to bottom. Dontrelle Willis showed real signs of progress after returning from an anxiety disorder, but he seemed hesitant to cut it loose against Baltimore in his last outing and was registering only 86-88 mph on the gun. Armando Galarraga, Detroit's most consistent starter in 2008, followed up a terrific April with a lousy May.

Jeremy Bonderman, rehabilitating from surgery to repair a circulatory problem in his shoulder, took a big step forward Sunday when he threw eight shutout innings for Triple-A Toledo against Charlotte. Before that outing, Leyland had refused to commit to a timetable, and got borderline cranky the more reporters questioned him about Bonderman's progress.

"The timeframe for his return is when he's good enough to get big league hitters out," Leyland said.

As long as Bonderman can do that, he'll fit right in with this group.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer