There were going to be ominous vibes hanging over the Detroit Tigers if they had to open 2014 without the same-old, same-old versions of Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. Which, as you'll recall, seemed like a distinct possibility not too long ago.
But now? Nah. Given what they've done this spring, any doubts about Cabrera and Verlander being anything other than their same-old, same-old selves should be in the past when the Tigers open up against the Kansas City Royals on Monday, March 31.
In case you've forgotten, Cabrera and Verlander entered camp recovering from similar surgeries. Miggy underwent core muscle repair surgery in late October, and Verlander had surgery on his own core in early January.
The prognosis on Miggy was good all along, as the slugging first baseman had the entire winter to recover and was telling reporters (including Chris Iott of MLive.com) in mid-November that he would be ready for spring training.
He certainly has been. Cabrera entered Wednesday's exhibition against the Philadelphia Phillies with a Miggy-like .378/.474/.622 batting line in 17 spring games. Baseball-Reference.com put his opponent quality at 9.1, pretty close to the "10" that represents MLB-caliber competition.
Verlander, though, was more iffy. The Associated Press reported after he underwent his surgery that he would need six weeks of rehab, making the start of spring training out to be a question mark. And since that was a question mark, so, too, was the idea of him being ready for Opening Day.
Well, so much for that.
Verlander made his fourth start of the spring on Wednesday, and it was just as impressive as the first three. He limited the Phillies to a hit and a walk in six-and-a-third, tacking on seven strikeouts. He needed only 87 pitches.
"Pretty well," Verlander said when asked to describe his afternoon, via Iott. "Fastball control was good. Offspeed stuff was good. Can't ask for much more than that going into the season."
Here's ESPN's Jayson Stark with the "all told" summary on Verlander's spring:
What's more, Verlander's competition has been even stiffer than Miggy's. Baseball-Reference.com had Verlander's opponent quality at 9.5 heading into Wednesday's outing, and then he faced a Phillies lineup with Ben Revere, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Marlon Byrd and Domonic Brown.
Now, as much as I'd like to save myself some trouble and just leave it at the numbers, you and I both know that would be The Dude-esque laziness. It's nice that Miggy and Verlander have performed like themselves, but what's more important is whether they've looked like themselves.
Here's the thing about that: We wouldn't be having this conversation if that wasn't the case.
Regarding Cabrera, it was clear last October that his injuries had robbed him of his explosive power. Whereas a healthy Cabrera is a hitter who can hit any pitch with power to any field, the injured Cabrera really only had pull power. And not much of it, at that.
Which leads us to the good news: Cabrera has hit three home runs this spring, and each suggests his customary explosive power is back.
Cabrera's first homer of the spring and third homer of the spring both went out to right field. That would be the same field where he hit five more home runs than any other right-handed hitter in 2013, which gives you an idea of what kind of oppo power Miggy is packing when he's feeling right.
And while you'll have to pardon the crummy Photoshop work brought on by crummy spring training camerawork (that's what I tell myself, anyway), we can see that Miggy's two oppo homers came on two similarly located fastballs:
There aren't too many righty hitters who can take a fastball at the knees and drive it out the other way. Miggy's one of them when he's right. That he was able to do it with these two pitches, therefore, is quite promising.
A lack of opposite-field power wasn't the only thing Cabrera was lacking last October, of course. We also saw him struggle to do anything with fastballs away, and he didn't hesitate to attribute that to his injuries.
"It hurt so much that I almost couldn't lift my right leg, and that was the reason I couldn't reach the outside fastballs at the end of the season," Cabrera told Enrique Rojas of ESPNDeportes.com.
This is what makes Miggy's second home run of the spring look so good:
Here's a better look at the location of that pitch as it crossed the plate:
That was a fastball that was up, but also maybe an inch or two off the outer edge of the plate. Miggy was able to catch up to it and drive it out to the deepest part of the yard.
Granted, these are only three home runs, and spring training home runs to boot. But because they show Miggy doing things he couldn't do when he was banged up last fall, they're much more encouraging than a typical trio of spring training home runs.
For now, anyway, Cabrera appears to be back.
As for Verlander...
Probably the biggest question we had about Verlander coming into the spring was, well, basically the same question we have with any veteran pitcher returning from an injury: Would the stuff be there?
And yeah, it didn't take long for Verlander to answer that question in the affirmative.
As Jason Beck of MLB.com reported, Verlander's fastball velocity in his first outing against the Toronto Blue Jays on March 6 was in the 90-94 mph range. Beck noted that's precisely where Verlander was hoping to be.
By Verlander's third outing against the Atlanta Braves, he was ready to throw a bit harder. Watch this video, and you'll see one fastball clocked at 95 and another clocked at 96:
Consider this a sign that Verlander still has the ability to reach back for something extra when he wants. And if extra heat means 95 or 96 now, it will likely mean 97 or 98 later. Call it a hunch based on how, according to Brooks Baseball, Verlander added velocity as 2013 went along.
Verlander's primary off-speed pitches looked good, too. After throwing only fastballs and curveballs in his first outing, he broke out his changeup in his second outing against the Washington Nationals and picked up each of his first three strikeouts with it.
The movement on those changeups was nice, but even better was their location. Verlander put all three below the knees, where neither Jayson Werth nor Bryce Harper nor Adam LaRoche (three pretty good hitters, by the way) had a chance.
But it was Verlander's knee-buckling curveball that was his best pitch in 2013. Per Brooks Baseball, he used it to hold hitters to a .181 average and a .078 ISO. And as you might have noticed in the Atlanta highlight video, Verlander threw one curve to B.J. Upton that demonstrated its knee-buckling-ness is still very much there.
Here's Upton freezing when the pitch was in the clouds halfway to home plate:
And here's Upton in a near-heap as the pitch crossed the plate:
In those red circles, what you see is a pair of buckled knees and a pair of slumped shoulders: the tell-tale signs of a devastating curveball.
The pitch that hasn't made its presence felt as much this spring is Verlander's slider. But considering that it's his least-used and probably least-nasty secondary offering, that qualifies as something less than a harbinger of doom. That he has a good fastball, changeup and curveball is what really counts.
And while it's the 0.00 ERA that Verlander has this spring that stands out, the 17 strikeouts he's racked up against the 69 hitters he's faced is even better. That's a 24.6 strikeout rate, which is better than the 23.5 he posted last year. Since FanGraphs' Mike Podhorzer found two years ago that there is some predictive value in spring strikeout rates, that's a good sign.
On that note, it's also a good sign that Verlander has walked only 7.2 percent of the batters he's faced this spring. That's right along the lines of his 7.4 career walk rate, which is notable because Podhorzer also found that there's some predictive value in spring walk rates.
With Opening Day now just days away, here's us looking at the scenario that Detroit was presumably hoping for when spring training got to this point. Between how they've looked and how they've performed, you'd never know that Cabrera and Verlander both underwent fairly serious surgeries during the offseason.
Good news for the Tigers. Bad news for everyone else.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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