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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Overworked or underworked? Leyland not worried, either way

How much work is too much work?

With the Detroit Tigers bullpen taxed for five innings of work in Sunday's extra-inning win over the Cleveland Indians, manager Jim Leyland admitted before Monday’s game against the Yankees that he wasn’t worried about its status all that much, all things considered.

“Pretty darn good, buddy,” Leyland joked about the status of the ’pen. “It wouldn’t be quite as good if we didn’t have the guy starting that we’ve got starting. Hopefully this is one of those games where your ace is an ace.”

Oh, and that guy was.

Justin Verlander was every bit the ace (and ’pen protector) he'd always been, going eight sensational innings, matching his career high with 14 strikeouts. Leyland only needed to use closer Jose Valverde for the ninth inning.

“We were short (set-up man Joaquin) Benoit tonight, and I didn’t really want to use Cokie (lefty Phil Coke), so we needed the ace to pitch like an ace, and he did that, and more,” Leyland said afterward. “You can’t ask for more than what he gave us.”

But could you ask for less? Like less pitches?


Verlander also matched his regular-season high with 132 pitches, but hardly looked gassed in the eighth, striking out the final three batters he faced, corkscrewing Ichiro Suzuki into the ground with an 80 mph curveball on his final pitch.

Sure, there was no need to push anything, with the Tigers sitting on a five-run lead.

But it was certainly a decision that Leyland put some thought into.

“That was a little bit of a difficult call, but we’re fortunate, really, because he’s had six days rest, two of his last three starts. And he’ll get that again here shortly, because we have some other days off coming up. Not the next one, but the next one after that,” the skipper said after the game.

“That should work out OK.”

And, it's worth noting that Verlander only threw five innings in his last start, the rain-shortened loss in Boston that snapped his incredible streak of 63 straight starts with six or more innings pitched.

Is workload a concern for Verlander, given the monumental load he seems to always be shouldering?

Including the postseason, he threw more than 4,300 pitches last year, the most for any American League pitcher in 22 seasons, including 133 in his gem in the Tigers’ Game 5 win over Texas in the AL Championship Series. He’d thrown more than 600 more pitches than any other pitcher in baseball over the previous three seasons, and leads the next closest hurler this season (Seattle’s Jason Vargas) by 166 pitches.

He’s led MLB in innings pitched two of the last three years, and is atop the bigs again this season with 168 2/3 innings pitched, 4 2/3 more than Felix Hernandez.

But Leyland wasn’t sweating it in the eighth inning of Monday’s game, no matter how it may have looked when he made a mound visit after a leadoff walk. He was just checking if a line shot off Verlander’s calf was hurting enough that it would cause a change in his delivery.

“I'm looking at how he gets the hitters out. Didn’t bother me at all,” Leyland said. “Truth be known, if there wasn’t so much made about it, he could throw 130 pitches every time. It’s a walk in the park. ... That’s a piece of cake, if the truth be known. If you give him an extra day here and there, that’s a piece of cake.”

How about 140 or 150? Would Leyland do that?

“I would not. Unless I had about a 10-year extension,” Leyland joked. “But I think Justin Verlander could throw 140 pitches, and I don’t think it would bother him a bit. I truly believe that. When I say that, he was only eight off (Monday) night.”

Pitch count, though, has become an all-consuming infatuation for people around the game of baseball, a huge departure from how it used to be.

“That’s just today’s baseball that’s always going to be talked about. That’s just today’s modern baseball. Guys used to throw that like it’s nothing. Because we’re protective, and we should be, and we worry, and we’ve got that kind of arm,” Leyland said. “It’s just the simple facts of life that the game’s changed. Contracts are different.

“Simple truth, facts of life. That’s just the way it is. The game’s changed. Nobody ever thought about that, pitch counts, and now it’s become a big thing. It’s like the hot topic, all of a sudden, and it was never a hot topic.

“It also became a hot topic when agents and big contracts came into play. Let’s just sort through all the (bull). When agents and big contracts came into play, pitch counts came into play.”

All that attention on the concept has made managers a little leery of pushing it, fearful of the backlash, the shouts of “overwork,” should any pitcher get hurt. Look at all the scrutiny heaped on the Washington Nationals for setting an innings limit for ace Stephen Strasburg, as he comes back from Tommy John surgery.

“And you know what? I’ll be the first to tell you that I think all the managers are a little worried about it. Because there’s so much emphasis on it in the modern game. I think all general managers are a little concerned about it,” Leyland admitted. “We’re all a little nervous about it. I gotta be honest. I would never abuse any pitcher, but Justin Verlander, that’s a big investment for the Detroit Tigers. Plus the kid’s future. He’s got another world yet to go to, another contract.

“I’m not going to lie and say you’re not conscientious of it. Because you are.

“I don’t necessarily agree with it, but sure we are.”


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