Verlander: Dominant Stuff, Inconsistent Command
By Will Kimmey
Justin Verlander has always had a special right arm.
"When he was 9 years old, we were throwing rocks into a pond," his father Richard recalls. "I picked up one and threw it as far as I could, which was about halfway across. Justin picked up a rock, and he threw it all the way across to the other side."
Now 21, Verlander can throw a baseball on a line from end zone to end zone on a football field. His father, mother and 12-year-old brother form a relay to get him the ball back during these long-toss sessions.
That kind of arm strength allows the 6-foot-4, 180-pound righthander to push 100 mph on the radar gun. It also has scouts flocking to Old Dominion to watch Verlander pitch. It might even make him the first overall pick in the 2004 draft.
"When you look at Verlander's raw stuff, his fastball velocity and the power breaking ball he has, I think he has the best combination of those two pitches of anyone in the draft," says an American League scouting director who holds a top 10 pick this June.
The scouting director pauses, then unleashes a fatal "but".
"But as you know, command is a big part of pitching."
Verlander has racked up 48 strikeouts in 38 innings this season but has walked 21 batters as well. That's nearly five walks per nine innings, up from just more than three his first two years in school.
It's a strong contrast to Verlander's chief competition for the top pick in the draft, Long Beach State junior righthander Jered Weaver. Weaver has compiled a 73-6 strikeout-walk ratio in 51 innings, mostly though his ability to put his 90-94 mph fastball anywhere he wants it in the strike zone.
"Verlander has better pure stuff than Weaver," the AL scouting director says. "Weaver has the whole package. He's got better pitchability, and his third pitch is a better pitch than Verlander's."
The pick ultimately could come down to whether a team wants to venture a bonus upwards of $4 million on a finished product that could reach his ceiling as a No. 3 starter very quickly, or a raw commodity with the potential to be a dominant No. 1 after a few years of minor league seasoning.
"That's sort of the same argument when you look at high school versus college guys," a National League scouting director says. "It just comes down to what comfort level you have at draft time.
"You have to ask, 'Does (Verlander) have the potential to be that much better (than anyone else), or are there other guys who maybe have a little less stuff but might be better pitchers down the road?' I don't think it's cut and dry."
Missed In The Draft
It's interesting that Verlander is even under consideration as the top pick after he wasn't drafted three years ago out of Goochland (Va.) High, just west of Richmond, where he played Little League with Twins 2003 first-round pick Matt Moses.
Verlander's fastball reached 93 mph during summer showcases before his senior year. He chose Old Dominion over Duke and James Madison that July because the Monarchs had shown the most interest in him.
Scouts seemed to lose interest despite his arm strength, as Verlander was sick prior to the first several starts of his senior year and pitched in a weakened condition. He threw in the high 80s the first time scouts checked him out and fell on follow lists. Control and mechanical problems were also an issue, as was Verlander's desire to attend college if he wasn't selected in the early rounds.
"He was on everybody's list going into his senior year, but he had too many questions and never got into a groove," says an area scout who has followed Verlander since his junior year.
Pitching in college has helped Verlander tremendously. He says he's pleased with the route he has taken. "It's just been a developmental thing," he says. "When I look back on it, I've been working on things in college I didn't even know about in high school."
Verlander started lifting weights for the first time at Old Dominion, and has amped up his fastball nearly 7 mph in two and a half years. He has enough stamina to still reach the upper 90s after 100 pitches in most starts, and hit 99 seven times in a recent outing against Virginia. He says it'd be exciting to hit 100, but knows he has other things to focus on.
Former Old Dominion pitching coach Shohn Doty spent the past two years helping him eliminate his herky-jerky high school delivery. Jim Tyrrell became the Monarchs pitching coach this season and has focused on helping Verlander work hitters.
"I kind of realized I couldn't blow the ball by everybody," Verlander says. "In high school I could do that, but now it's not going to work. I need to pitch."
There's That Word Again
Verlander admits command is still his biggest weakness. He knows he can be guilty of over-extending his stride and flying open with his front side. He felt it happening in a recent start against Kent State, where he walked three and allowed three earned runs in four innings before getting pulled. He has worked specifically on that part of his delivery in bullpen sessions.
"He has a tendency to get ahead of himself just a little bit," Tyrrell said. "He works too fast. He just needs to slow down a little bit, and he's going to be dominant."
He has flashed dominance in his career. Verlander set an Old Dominion single-season record with 139 strikeouts as a sophomore, parlaying that performance into a spot on USA Baseball's national team last summer. His 41 strikeouts led a staff that also included potential first-rounders such as Weaver, Virginia Commonwealth's Justin Orenduff, Texas' Huston Street and South Carolina's Matt Campbell.
"He had the best stuff of anyone we had," national team coach Ray Tanner says, "but his command was a little behind."
There's that "but" again. Verlander takes it in stride. There was a certain pitcher before him with similar fastball velocity, a similarly vicious breaking ball, even similar struggles with control. It's a pitcher Verlander idolized as a child, long before he himself developed into the same type of pitcher.
"It's kind of weird to think about it like that," Verlander says. "I'm not in his ballpark yet, but I guess we do have similar stuff."
His name is Nolan Ryan. He struck out 5,714 batters, but walked 2,178.