Justin Verlander is healthy and on the path back to reclaiming his throne as the top pitcher in the American League.
For now, that much was clear during his 52-pitch outing against the Toronto Blue Jays at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla. Although it's too early to surmise or predict another American League Cy Young campaign for the 31-year-old righty, Verlander looked comfortable and in rhythm in just under four innings of work.
That comfort and rhythm eluded Verlander for most of the 2013 season. From Opening Day through the end of August, the former American League MVP sported an uncharacteristically high ERA of 3.73.
Then, almost instantly, Verlander transformed back into the stopper of old. From that moment through the end the of Detroit's ALCS appearance against the Boston Red Sox, the Tigers' tenured ace threw 63 innings of dominant baseball, posting a 1.57 ERA and 79 strikeouts.
Those issues—along with the subsequent turnaround—were overshadowed during the offseason when it was revealed that Verlander needed core surgery. According to MLB.com's Jason Beck, Verlander believes the injury to his core last season led to mechanical issues that took nearly a full season to uncover.
Just overall last year, there was a tilt in my shoulders. I look back at pitches I made in the past and right when I’m about to fire to throw home, everything’s parallel. My shoulders are almost parallel, my arm’s up behind my head, and everything’s firing on a parallel plane. Last year, if you were to take a snapshot, there’s a lot of pitches where my lead arm’s up here and I’m firing from down here, almost below my neck.
With the procedure in the mirror, Verlander's first spring start was scheduled for last week. Yet as the Florida weather turned to rain, it was pushed back to this week against the Blue Jays.
If you didn't know about Verlander's surgery, lackluster five-month stretch in 2013 or mechanical issues that threatened to curtail a successful Tigers team last year, those facts wouldn't have been evident when watching him pitch against Toronto.
From the opening pitch of the game—a strike to Jose Reyes—to a lazy fly ball to left field to a broken-bat ground ball back to the mound, Verlander breezed through the first inning, allowing only a single. His control, during the first live competition since the 2013 ALCS, was slightly off, but far from alarming.
In the second, Verlander allowed a walk to start the frame. From there, defense took over in the form of a caught-stealing attempt and easy out on a ground ball to shortstop.
During Verlander's third inning—his final full frame of the day—the rhythm and fastball life seemed to return to what you would expect from one of baseball's most accomplished arms. Although the radar gun didn't reveal any 95-plus MPH fastballs, Verlander was sitting at 88-94 for his outing. Much like during the best games of his career, he had more life on the fastball as the outing progressed.
Yet, despite the ability to limit runs and feature velocity during a strikeout in the third inning, it was an at-bat by Toronto's Maicer Izturis in the fourth inning that should stay with Tigers fans.
Although the 10-pitch battle curtailed Verlander's outing before he was able to complete four frames, the at-bat showed that stamina isn't an issue for the expensive righty.
After breezing through the first three innings—using only 38 of his allotted 50-55 pitches for the day—Izturis fought to start the fourth, coercing Verlander into his first double-digit pitch at-bat of the season.
The result was a seemingly innocuous fly ball to left field, but it meant more to both Verlander and the Tigers.
After surgery, a difficult season and admitted struggles with mechanics, Izturis' at-bat was the moment where a rusty Verlander could have been expected to falter, leaving a pitch over the plate and allowing an extra-base hit.
When it didn't occur, Verlander's successful day was all but done.
There are still major hurdles for Verlander to clear in order to become the consistent and dominant starter of old. If the mechanics of today can't be repeated during his next start, concern will arise. If soreness or comfort issues return before Opening Day, the Tigers' perch atop the AL Central will be in question.
In Lakeland, the Tigers and manager Brad Ausmus will take it day-by-day with their $20-million arm.
For now: So far, so good.
If Verlander can build off this and stay healthy into April, there's little reason to believe he won't soon return to the top of the AL pitching ranks.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.