Detroit Tigers Manager Jim Leyland Puts Unnecessary Pitch Count on Justin Verlander

He was one of the last of a dying breed, and old school manager who made decisions on his gut instinct more often than the computer printouts. He was always smoking in the hallway leading to the clubhouse and swearing like a sailor would on a three-day weekend pass.

Jim Leyland was a bench coach with Tony LaRussa in Chicago back in the 1980’s before embarking on his own managerial career. After a couple playoff near misses in Pittsburgh, he then won the World Series in 1997 with the Florida Marlins. Leyland got there again in 2006 with the Detroit Tigers (his current team) where he lost the Series to his mentor, LaRussa and the St. Louis Cardinals.

But Leyland is finally gone the route of the namby-pamby skippers.

He has instituted a pitch count for his ace, Justin Verlander. A work-horse type pitcher with a big 6’5″, 225 lb frame, Verlander has taken the ball for 140 starts in the major leagues. He has never missed a start due to an injury, but during his 2006 rookie season the Tigers skipped Verlander two times, once during the All Star break and once in September.

The Tigers had a big lead late that season, and they theorized that since Verlander would pitch in the playoffs, they could limit his innings. OK, sounds good. Limit the workload of your best pitcher, keeping him fresh for the playoffs.

Didn’t quite work out as planned because in four starts during the 2006 post season, Verlander was 1-2 with a 5.82 ERA.

But even after that “heavy workload” season, Verlander has never missed a start for injury, making 32 starts in 2007, 33 in 2008 and a stunning 35 starts last season. Stunning in 2009 only to the fact that since Verlander never went on three days rest, and while even going on five days rest 11 times, he still managed to start 35 games.

He threw 240 innings last year, tops in baseball. He also threw the most pitches in 2009 at 3,937. And when Verlander got off to a bad start in 2010, there was a USA today piece saying his slow start could have been attributable to his 2009 workload.

Old school Leyland was asked about this workload and didn’t buy it, saying Verlander “threw more pitches last year because he pitched better, so he was in games longer.” Verlander also pitches in the American League (AL) and since the pitcher is rarely removed for a pinch hitter, all the top AL pitchers should be at the top of the innings and pitch amounts.

To prove his point to the Detroit writers, Leyland produced a computer printout showing in detail the number of pitches Verlander threw in each of his 35 starts last season, encompassing those 240 innings.

“Justin averaged 112 pitches a game,” Leyland said. “That’s a sneeze. Seven innings at 15 pitches is 105. If 112 pitches is a lot, then I should go home.”

“Justin Verlander is a horse,” Leyland continued. “He was mad at me a lot of times because I took him out last year.

In fact, there has been no velocity change at all for Verlander this season. His last pitch of the day yesterday was a 98 MPH fastball to Brett Gardner.

But after Verlander threw 125 pitches against the Los Angeles Angels on April 22 and 121 pitches (in 5.1 innings) against the Minnesota Twins (a loss with no earned runs), Leyland came out with his new policy on his “horse.”

“I don’t take a chance with anybody,” Leyland said. “I take pride in handling my pitching staff and taking care of them, and I’m not going to change. … Where do you draw the line? He’s a horse, I understand that, but he exerts himself a little bit more than other guys when he gets in certain situations.”

Leyland has twice used the word horse regarding Verlander, but it is plainly obvious that Detroit upper management had a little talk with Leyland about the horse’s steady work.

Without Leyalnd saying the exact number of Verlander’s new pitch count, I believe it is 120 pitches.

Since Leyland’s new stance was made public, Verlander has gone 120 pitches in 8.1 innings against the Angels and 118 in 6.0 innings today versus Cleveland. And in yesterday win over the Yankees, Verlander got a visit to the mound during the Gardner at bat, and the image was beautiful.

Verlander looked at the scoreboard to see what his pitch count was and talked Leyland into staying in the game because he had not yet hit his 120 pitch count.

Leyland has not divulged his limit for Verlander, but it is safe to assume it is 120 pitches.

But while Leyland says Verlander exerts more due to his power pitching stature, he also should realize that Verlander has tremendous mechanics which allows him to throw that hard and also throw many more pitches than other pitchers without feeling tired or putting extra strain on his arm.

And the Tigers hurler is not happy about this new policy. 

“I don’t know if I can put one word to it, maybe overrated. I think it’s incredibly hard to put a stamp on every pitcher in the world and say, this is when you’re tired, this is when your arm is going to fall off. I think everybody’s different.”

Verlander did admit the policy had something to do with his very large guaranteed contract.  He signed a five-year, $80-million extension in the off-season, thereby making his arm the Tigers’ most valuable asset.

“With the amount of dollars in this industry now, you really can’t take a chance,” Verlander said. “Do I wish I could stay out there for 175 pitches? Yeah … but I get a pretty long leash by today’s standards. Which I’m grateful for that, too.”

Leyland said he takes pride in protecting his by when he managed the Pittsburgh Pirates, Doug Drabek regularly went over 120 pitches, once throwing 150 pitches in a game. In 2006, Leyland babied Jeremy Bonderman but he ended up getting hurt.

But Bonderman di not get hurt due to pitching overload, but because Bonderman has crappy pitching mechanics which puts additional strain on his shoulder. Did you know that Bonderman has NEVER thrown 120 or more pitches in a game, yet has had recurring shoulder issues?

How can that be? He has never been pitcher abused with pitch counts, and his biggest increase in the Tom Verducci inspired innings increase garbage has been 45 innings when he went from 189 IP in 2005 to 234 (including post season) in 2006. And that was his fifth professional season.

No, it was Bonderman’s terrible mechanics which caused his arm problems. Look at this image of Bonderman. OUCH! Just try and place your arms in that position. Placing it in that position hurts your shoulder, yet I can’t imagine how it feeels to throw a ball with that arm action.

Verlander, however, has very clean mechanics, and nary an injury.

Justin threw 120 or more pitches 11 times in 2009. In the 10 games after throwing 120+ pitches, he was 7-3 with a 2.93 ERA, 1.005 WHIP and 85 strikeouts in 70.2 innings.

Pretty dominant. In the pennant race last year Verlander won four of his last five starts, pitching into the 8th inning and throwing 120+ pitches in every start. Leyland and the Tigers needed those games and Verlander delivered like a work horse ace should including in the final game on October 4 against the Chicago White Sox. That win allowed the Tigers to play the next day for the division title.  

Why was Verlander allowed to go deeper into those games? Was it because the Tigers needed them? Well, teams need all the games during a season.

In 2009 Verlander was pulled in three games due to pitch counts, the most important was during the 7th inning of a  May 14, a 6-5 loss to those same Twins. With one out and with a 5-0 lead and runners on first and second, Verlander was pulled after 122 pitches. The bullpen blew the game during that 7th inning, allowing six runs to be scored after Verlander left the game.

One thing consistent with pulling dominant starting pitchers out of games due to pitch counts is that many games are then lost due to inferior relievers trying to get important outs which the starter should be getting.

Ask Zach Greinke or Tim Lincecum all about that. In a pennant race in September, those early games which were blown usually come back to haunt those teams. Give me a dominant pitcher for six or seven years throwing lots of pitches and tons of innings, rather than a relatively good one for 12 or more.

I want Sandy Koufax and even the recently departed Robin Roberts on my squad for a dominant group of six or seven seasons before their career declines. I don’t want to lose key games during a specific year, miss the playoffs and possibly not have that great season for the individual or the team. 

So Leyland is now protecting his (and Detroit’s) valuable arm, quite the change from last season and four seasons ago when his Tigers (with a rookie Verlander) were taking on the New York Yankees in the ALDS.

When asked about the rookies (Verlander’s) workload prior to that 2006 series, Leyland said, “Who should it be harder for in September — Justin Verlander or Randy Johnson, who’s 40-something years old? If you can’t pitch the innings, then you don’t belong in the big leagues. Now, do I try to take care of them? Yes. Am I conscious about trying to not get somebody hurt? Absolutely. But I can’t live in this shelter that says, ‘Oh, I’m afraid to pitch my guy, because if he throws too many pitches, the general manager or the fans are going to be ticked off.’ ”

Sounds like Jim Leyland now needs that shelter more than ever, because the Tigers GM has dictated to Leyland to keep Verlander on a leash.

But Verlander’s history and clean pitching mechanics allows him to be treated differently than almost all other pitchers in baseball, with maybe the exception of Roy Halladay, another pitcher with clean mechanics, lots of innings and no history of arm issues. Verlander can go longer than 120 pitches, probably at least 135 to 140, especially when he is still throwing 98 MPH at the 120 pitch mark.

Similar velocity late in a game is a sign of continued strength in a pitcher during the course of a game. It shows good stamina and great leg strength, two key attributes for keeping your mechanics strong deep into games.

Maybe if Verlander was allowed to throw more during last season, especially during that May 14 game mentioned above, Detroit’s last game last year would not have been that October 4th play-in game against the White Sox, which the Tigers LOST in the 12th inning.

It would have been in the post season with Verlander possibly pitching them to the AL Central title.

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