This may seem odd now, but Drew VerHagen was once considered one of the top 10 prospects in the Detroit Tigers organization. Yes, I’m talking about middle reliever Drew VerHagen, he of the career 4.79 ERA in 141 career innings. The same Drew VerHagen that posted a 4.63 ERA in 56 1⁄3 innings for the Tigers this season, and has struck out fewer than 6.5 batters per nine innings in his entire professional career.
This wasn’t VerHagen’s fault, of course. The Tigers had one of the worst farm systems in baseball at that point, consistently sitting near (if not at) the very bottom of everyone’s organizational rankings. VerHagen was a capable fourth round pick out of Vanderbilt, but not necessarily the same caliber of talent we see atop the Tigers’ farm system rankings today.
Enough about the past, though. Let’s get to the point; VerHagen was much better than expected in 2018, and could be an important part of the team’s bullpen plans for next season and beyond.
One big stat: 2.61 second-half ERA
While VerHagen’s season-long ERA was fairly ugly, everything else about his profile was a step in the right direction. He gave up more runs than we would have liked, but allowed just under one home run per nine innings (0.96 HR/9). He posted a 22.8 percent strikeout rate and 14.6 K-BB%, both career highs. A 3.84 FIP and 3.78 SIERA were also the best of his MLB career.
Best of all, he turned that into actual scoreless innings. VerHagen had a rough start to the year, allowing a 6.30 ERA in nine April relief appearances. He had trouble finding the strike zone, walking 7 of the 42 batters he faced (16.7 percent), but was otherwise pretty unlucky. Opponents hit just .182 against him during that stretch, and did not hit a single home run.
That didn’t stop the organization from designating him for assignment, though. He went unclaimed, and was assigned back to Triple-A Toledo. It was here that he found his footing. He posted a 1.32 ERA with 41 strikeouts to just eight walks in six starts, and sent the Tigers fanbase into a frenzy; the MLB team was riddled with injuries at the time, and needed a capable starter or two to help keep the team afloat after a surprising start to the year.
He finally got the chance on June 4 in the first half of a doubleheader against the New York Yankees. That start went... like you would expect against a team that won 100 games. VerHagen gave up seven runs on seven hits (including three home runs) in 3 2⁄3 innings, and his ERA ballooned to 9.22. It went up again after his next outing, when the Cleveland Indians tagged him for a few runs in two relief innings. At that point, he had a 9.77 ERA in 15 2⁄3 MLB innings.
From that point on, VerHagen was nails. He limited his opponents to a 2.66 ERA in 40 2⁄3 frames, and gave up just three more home runs the rest of the year. Opponents hit .197/.255/.286 against him from June 13 onward, and he struck out nearly as many batters (38) as reached base against him (41).
While VerHagen attributes a lot of his success to improved confidence on the mound, there was more to it than that. VerHagen started throwing his slider more often, a mid-80s pitch that generated a 17.6 percent whiff rate. Opponents hit just .131 against it, and it became his go-to pitch in two strike counts. He used it 44 percent of the time when ahead in the count against righties, and even threw it 23 percent of the time — nearly as often as his slow curveball — with two strikes against lefties.
Having two consistent breaking balls at his disposal helped VerHagen dominate righties and keep lefties at bay. By the end of the year, he was a consistent presence in the sixth and seventh innings, although he only notched a couple of holds.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see how VerHagen fits into the Tigers’ plans. He is arbitration eligible this winter, but is only projected to receive a $900,000 salary for 2019. He could start to see more high leverage innings next year, depending on how things shake out, and might be an important piece over the next few seasons after that — Alex Wilson is a free agent after the 2019 season, and there will almost certainly be attrition elsewhere too.
What grade would you give Drew VerHagen’s performance in 2018?
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