Detroit Tigers fans have been treated to some of the finest starting pitching they’ve seen in a long time so far this season. The purveyor of the fine pitching has been staff ace Justin Verlander, who had 12 wins at the All-Star break, has fired a no-hitter, and over a nine game stretch went 8-1 with an ERA below 1.00. The flamethrower that was Verlander has seemed to evolve into a pitching artist.
The reason for that transformation is that Verlander is relying on an old strategy first articulated and practiced with near perfection by Christy Mathewson, the Hall of Fame hurler. Mathewson may not be familiar to many Tiger fans, but he was one of the greatest pitchers to ever toe a rubber. During his career, which spanned from 1900 to 1916, “Matty” won 373 games – an average of 22 per season. He led the league in ERA and strikeouts five times each, and four times he won as many as 30 games. Even in the Deadball Era, when runs were hard to score, Mathewson’s numbers were eye-popping. To top it off, Mathewson was the most beloved and idolized stars of the game in the first two decades of the 20th Century. Connie Mack, the Hall of Fame manager of the Philadelphia A’s, said of him: “He was the greatest pitcher who ever lived. He had knowledge, judgment, perfect control and form. It was wonderful to watch him pitch when he wasn’t pitching against you.”
Suffice to say, Mathewson knew how to pitch.
Nearly 100 years ago, in 1912, Grosset & Dunlap published Mathewson’s book titled, “Pitching in a Pinch”. The book was an instant smash. In it, Mathewson detailed his experiences in the big leagues while shedding a light on baseball behind the scenes. The sub-title of the book was “Baseball from the Inside”. It certainly was.
In one chapter, Mathewson explained what he believed was the most important part of the art of pitching. It’s a tactic that Verlander is using with precision in 2011, though he probably doesn’t even know who Mathewson is.
In Chapter III – “Pitching in a Pinch,” Mathewson writes:
“In most Big League ball games, there comes an inning on which hangs victory or defeat. Certain intellectual fans call it the crisis; college professors, interested in the sport, have named it the psychological moment; Big League managers mention it as the “break,” and pitchers speak of the “pinch.”
The famous right-handed hurler goes on to describe specific instances where he really bore down when the game was on the line. Earlier in the game, Matty would pitch to contact, preferring to save his energy for tight spots in the game when he needed his best stuff. Similarly, Verlander has done the same this season. Taking the advice of former Tiger ace Jack Morris to “stop trying to strike out every batter,” Verlander has resorted to coaxing enemy batters to put the ball in play and get themselves out. Granted, Verlander’s fastball is so “heavy” that he often jams batters which leads to poor swings and bad contact, but the philosophy of conserving his best stuff until he really needs it, comes right out of Mathewson’s playbook.
“Many Pitchers Are Effective in a Big League Ball Game until that Heart-Breaking Moment Arrives Known as the “Pinch”, Mathewson wrote. “It Is then that the Man in the Box is Put to the Severest Test … [when] Victory or Defeat Hangs on his Work in that inning.”
In recent starts, Verlander has cruised along using a 93-94 MPH fastball and his curve, saving his 100-101 MPH heater for when runners on base. He’s racked up an incredible first half because few batters have even reached base, but also because he goes for the strikeout in tough spots – the “pinch” as Matty called it.
With his maturity on the mound evident in 2011, there’s no telling how far Verlander can go, maybe even all the way to Cooperstown to join the author of “Pitching in a Pinch.”