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MLB Opening Day 2016: Drew VerHagen has an opportunity to shine in the Tigers' bullpen

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A permanent transition to the pen would be wise for both VerHagen and the Tigers.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Though the competition for the fifth starter spot is currently open, one name that has not been heavily mentioned is Drew VerHagen, a minor league starting pitcher who looked on track to join a major league rotation not too long ago. Unfortunately back injury halted him in his tracks shortly after his MLB debut in 2014, stopping his hard-charging momentum.

Instead, VerHagen has been pegged to return to the Detroit bullpen, where he performed well in 2015. While relievers Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, and Justin Wilson have roles that are more or less defined, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus believes VerHagen’s deployment may range anywhere from long-relief to late-game situations.

VerHagen appeared in 20 games with the Tigers last year, pitching 26 1/3 innings with a 2.05 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. He was one of the more impressive relievers during the last part of the season, holding opponents to a .198 batting average and allowing only one home run. Ausmus has been reportedly happy with what he has seen from VerHagen this spring, and at this point he is essentially a lock to begin the season in Detroit.

Keeping it low

VerHagen is a typical ground ball pitcher, which can work well with the Tigers’ current infield defense. He features four-seam and two-seam fastballs, a curveball, and a little used changeup, although he has mentioned this spring that he wants to use his changeup more frequently. His secondary pitches have some downward action, which fits with his overall game plan of keeping the ball low.

In 2015, VerHagen had just a 12.3 percent strikeout rate, while hitters made contact against him 84.1 percent of the time. Luckily, the majority of this contact resulted in ground balls (74.7 percent), resulting from his ability to attack the bottom of the zone. VerHagen will need to improve his command (13.2 percent walk rate), but he did show positive signs towards the end of the season, walking only three batters in his last nine innings while striking out five.

Gaining speed

VerHagen worked his way up through the minor leagues as a starter and made his major league debut in 2014, though he was only able to make one start for the Tigers before missing the rest of the season due to injury. When he returned in 2015, he worked exclusively as a reliever and saw positive changes in his pitch speeds. Though pitch velocity information is only available for his time in the majors, it is fair to assume that his minor league pitches in 2014 were similar to those tracked with the Tigers.

Fastball Changeup Curveball
2014 91.4 mph 82.7 mph 75.5 mph
2015 94.4 mph 85.2 mph 77.1 mph

The jump in velocity on all of his pitches is fairly significant, and the reason behind this should be clear. In 2013 and 2014, VerHagen appeared in 44 games and threw 242 2/3 innings, which comes out to over five innings an outing. In 2015, VerHagen pitched just 60 innings over 40 games. Perhaps the Tigers were cautious with his usage after returning from an injury, but nevertheless, VerHagen enjoyed a jump in velocity after a change was made to how he was being used.

Fit for the task

One advantage of keeping VerHagen in the pen is his ability to provide excellent multi-inning outings. In 2015, eight of his twenty appearances lasted more than one inning, and VerHagen allowed runs in only one of these instances. He also allowed less than two baserunners per appearance when pitching multiple innings. During these eight outings, VerHagen averaged at least 93 mph on his fastball seven times, and averaged over 95 mph on multiple occasions.

Furthermore, VerHagen can stay on the mound to face both lefties and righties. While he does fare worse against left-handers in batting average (.219) and walk rate (18 percent), VerHagen actually struck them out at a higher clip (15.4 percent) and generated a higher percent of ground balls (80 percent) as compared to facing right-handers. Overall, lefties have just a .300 wOBA against VerHagen.

Finding a place

VerHagen is only 25 years old, but it seems like his young career is in the process of making a big shift. With a handful of pitchers already vying for the last spot in the rotation, his clearest path to make the team is through the bullpen. He has proven that he can be used anywhere from tight-game situations to longer outings lasting a few innings. While VerHagen still has the skills to be an effective major league starter, his reliance on two pitches and his recent increase in velocity make his greatest value as a multi-purpose reliever in the Tigers' pen.