When the Detroit Tigers needed a spot starter for a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians in July 2014, they passed over then-top prospect Robbie Ray for unheralded righthander Drew VerHagen. Known as a ground ball specialist with back-of-the-rotation potential, VerHagen was passable in his big league debut. He allowed three runs on five hits in five innings, eventually taking the loss because he was matched up against Indians ace Corey Kluber.
Unfortunately, that July 19 outing would be VerHagen's final start of 2014. He suffered a stress fracture in his lower back and was shut down for the season, hurting his chances at a possible rotation spot with the Tigers in 2015. He made a handful of appearances in spring training, but aggravated his wonky back yet again and missed the first two months of the year. When healthy, VerHagen moved to the bullpen, where he made a handful of appearances at both Double and Triple-A before a one-outing stint in Detroit.
After another six weeks in Toledo, VerHagen was called up for good in mid-August. He made 19 appearances from August 19 to the end of the season, allowing a 1.42 ERA and a .527 OPS to opposing hitters. He struck out 13 and walked 10 in 25 1/3 innings, and only allowed one home run. His season-long 2.05 ERA was the lowest among Tigers pitchers who made multiple appearances (i.e. not Joe Nathan), and he tied for fifth on the pitching staff with 0.9 rWAR.
VerHagen lived up to his billing as a ground ball machine in 2015, inducing grounders at a whopping 75 percent clip in his 20 MLB appearances. This won't last -- even the most extreme ground-pounders top out near 60 percent in enough innings -- but VerHagen's fastball and curveball both have a lot of downward action on them. The Tigers' infield defense turned eight double plays behind him this season, a big reason why he was able to strand baserunners at an 85 percent clip.
An added benefit to all the ground balls that VerHagen allows is a very low fly ball rate, and, by extension, a very low home run rate. VerHagen only allowed one home run in the major leagues this season, and has only given up 10 homers in four seasons at the minor league level.
The ground balls are nice, but VerHagen only struck out 13 batters in 26 1/3 major league innings, a rate of just 4.44 per nine innings. He doesn't have a true out pitch, and only one of his three offerings -- a below average changeup -- induced a whiff rate above 10 percent. Since 2000, only seven pitchers have maintained a career ERA under 3.50 with a strikeout rate under 15 percent in 100 or more innings of work. VerHagen could be number eight if he keeps his fastball low in the strike zone, but the odds are against him.
To make matters worse, VerHagen actually walked more batters than he struck out this season. He has struggled with his command at times in his minor league career, resulting in some underwhelming peripheral numbers. He has been able to maintain an FIP under 4.00 in the minor leagues from 2013 to 2015, but walked 82 batters in 272 innings during that span. Walking 2.7 batters per nine innings isn't bad, but with such a low strikeout rate, you would like to see him pound the strike zone a bit more.
The ug- wait, what was that?
VerHagen's peripherals are concerning, but he has the raw stuff to be a successful reliever at the major league level. His fastball topped out at 96 miles per hour this year, while both the heater and curveball generated an extremely high ground ball rate. The above curveball GIF was one of three consecutive that VerHagen threw to Chicago's Jose Abreu in that at-bat, and the White Sox slugger whiffed on all three. VerHagen induced several more awkward swings with the bender, and was able to throw it for strikes as well.
Because of injury issues with his back, the Tigers made an ineffectual starting VerHagen into a strength in the bullpen. There are still consistency issues and he's still getting used to pitching out of the bullpen, but making VerHagen a reliever was the best thing the Tigers could have done for him, and them. Down the stretch he saved the 'pen repeatedly and eased questions regarding his future.
Expectations for 2016
VerHagen doesn't have the swing-and-miss stuff of a typical late-inning reliever, but as we saw with pitchers like Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy in 2015, it doesn't take a gaudy strikeout rate to get opposing hitters out. VerHagen has the stuff to succeed at the major league level as long as he hones his command. It's still unclear whether the Tigers will keep him in the bullpen or move him back to the rotation, but with plenty of other arms already gunning for innings and a few more nor far behind, VerHagen's quickest path back to Detroit probably rests in the pen.