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Are the Tigers saving Verlander's bullets for a deep playoff drive?

By Mike Axisa | Baseball Writer

More: Game 5 box score | Game 5 quick hit | ALDS grades

Following the eighth inning of ALDS Game 5 between the Tigers and Athletics on Thursday night, I sent out this tweet:

In an elimination game and with eight shutout innings in the bag, I figured Justin Verlander would head right back out for the ninth inning to finish what he started. He's a workhorse of the first order, regularly throwing 120+ pitches in a given start in the regular season. Doing it in the postseason was a no-brainer.

Except Verlander never went back out for the ninth. Closer Joaquin Benoit took over to start the inning with a 3-0 lead and preserved the win (but not before allowing the tying run to come to the plate). For the first time in his career, the Tigers seem to be taking it easy with Verlander. "Easy" being a relatively term, of course.

"A little bit, ya know," said Verlander during a post-Game 5 interview when asked if he lobbied to go back out for the ninth. "I told 'em 'I'm runnin' on fumes here, but send me back out there and we'll see what happens' ... [Manager Jim Leyland] told me you don't want to bring in our closer -- you know if I give up a baserunner and they take me out of the game -- you don't want to bring in a closer with men on base in a sticky situation, so that made complete sense to me and Benoit's been fantastic for us all year."

Verlander readily admitted he was running on fumes late in the game, and the velocity data backs it up. Dan Brooks of the indispensable Brooks Baseball tweeted out this graph during the game:

That is Verlander's velocity throughout the game, all 111 pitches. The vertical clusters are the innings, the horizontal clusters his different pitches. The top cluster is his fastball and you can see he went from sitting 96 mph in the seventh* to sitting 94 mph in the eighth. The graph does a real good job of showing the fastball velocity drop in that final inning. He was out of gas.

* lol

Compared to the last four years, Verlander's workload was down a bit this season. Again, "down" is a relative term here. He still threw the eighth most innings in baseball in 2013. Here's a quick year-by-year breakdown of Verlander's workload:

Justin Verlander's Recent Career Workload
SeasonInningsInnings per StartPitches per Start
2013218 1/36.4108.6
2012238 1/37.2114.2
20112517.4115.9
2010224 1/36.8113.5
20092406.9112.5
20082016.1106.9
2007201 2/36.3104.8
20061866.299.0

Almost one fewer inning and 7-8 fewer pitches per start this year? That's quite a drop, especially when you consider the seventh inning was his best (2.18 ERA and 75 OPS+ against) this season, yet he only went back out for the eighth five times in 34 starts. He started the eighth inning 16 times in 2012 and 19 times in 2011.

Verlander threw 121, 122 and 132 pitches in his first three postseason starts last fall and dominated in all three of them, but he got knocked around in his fourth outing (five runs in four innings in Game 1 of the World Series) while only thowing 98 pitches. At that point he was up to 262 2/3 innings on the year, so yeah, he was probably out of the gas. It appears the Tigers have been making an effort to avoid a similar problem this year, evidenced by not going back out for the ninth inning on Thursday.

Verlander turns 31 in January and he signed a $180 million contract that runs through 2019 earlier this year, so the Tigers have quite a bit invested in him. Limiting his workload is as much about making sure he's at his best in the ALCS and World Series as it is making sure he's worth his salary in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Verlander is still an elite workhorse with unmatched durability, but after such a heavy workload from 2009-12, the club seems to be taking their foot off the gas to protect him going forward.

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