Once upon a time, Justin Verlander was the sort of dominant pitcher that made pitching coaches in other organizations sit up and take notice. One of them was new Detroit Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp, who looked at Verlander and tried to apply what he saw to his prospects in the Minnesota Twins organization.
One of the pitchers whom Knapp tried to use Verlander as an example with was Matt Garza. You might remember him as the MVP of the American League Championship Series for the Tampa Bay Rays.
"If I can make Garza like this guy, this will be pretty exciting," Knapp recalled Wednesday. "They're both tall, thin, athletic, [have a] power fastball with the power curveball. I know Matt was an extremely driven individual. He was a man on a mission from the first day. There was no going to be no denying him. You could see that from the very first day."
Now, with Garza looking like a dominant pitcher, Verlander coming off his worst season in the majors, and Knapp in charge of turning around the Tigers' pitching staff, the roles have seemingly reversed. Knapp might end up using Garza as a teaching example for his new ace student.
Though many of us like to point to Dontrelle Willis as the pitcher Knapp needs to help the most, perhaps Verlander is the one who might immediately benefit from a new "hit the strike zone" philosophy. Last season, he seemed to beat himself constantly by not trusting his stuff. Nibbling around the strike zone and trying to get hitters to chase racked up high pitch counts, often taking Verlander out of the game after five innings and exposing Detroit's poor middle relief.
Knapp wants his pitchers to take a different approach.
"In every talk, in every meeting, we tried to de-emphasize velocity," Knapp said, "in the fact that velocity would take care of itself if we concentrated on delivery and location."
"If you're going to make an impression on me, throw the ball over the plate. It was told to me a long, long time ago: If you throw the ball over the plate, you have a chance. If you don't, you don't have a chance. That's always been our philosophy, and I hope that it can translate."
How much better might Verlander be if he's not just trying to throw the ball past batters? And with the kind of stuff we know he has, what could refined mechanics and a smarter game plan against hitters result in?