What I’m Hearing: USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale tells us what he’s hearing regarding which MLB players will take home some hardware at the end of the season.
USA TODAYHOUSTON — One guy is an old pitcher, and the other just has an old soul.Together, Houston Astros aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole mock the idea that wins are overvalued for starting pitchers, believe tossing anything less than six innings is unacceptable, and certainly appreciate the art of pitching despite the league using baseballs that put Top Flite golf balls to shame.The Cy Young contending tandem sat down in separate interviews with USA TODAY Sports this week, talked about their pitching philosophies, and their quest to return starting pitching to the way it was designed.“I used to throw 90-93 and finishing the game throwing 100 mph,’’ Verlander said. “Now, with the ball the way it is, I can’t do that.“I can’t hit corners at 90-93 mph because every pitch in the strike-zone can be hit for a home run. To any part of the field. By any batter. So I need to change how I pitch. It used to be missing barrels or getting guys off balance. Now, it’s missing bats.“For a starting pitcher to go three, four times through a lineup with the same stuff is an art of pitching that isn’t really talked about anymore.’’Oh, and about that ball – that Verlander called a (expletive) joke at the All-Star Game, accusing Major League Baseball of intentionally doctoring to help break the all-time home run record? Pull up a chair and listen.“I thought it was a good time to voice my opinion,’’ Verlander said, “because people didn’t have to be like, ‘Oh, he’s making excuses.’ But I’m not making excuses. This is matter of fact. This is what’s happening to the game.“I think we’re missing some of the smaller victories in the game of baseball. Some of the cool things that make the game great – the hit-and-run, the stealing bases, going from first to third, stretching a single into a double to get in scoring position, getting him over and getting him in – those things are fading out of the game because 1 through 9, guys can hit a homer. “I know we’re all using the same balls, that’s not my argument, but what I’m saying is we’re ruining the game here.’’These juiced balls already have caused Verlander to give up a career-high 33 homers. It cost Cole perhaps a perfect game in his last start, with his only hit allowed a homer to Shed Long of the Seattle Mariners, retiring 24 of the 25 batters he faced, striking out 15 of them.“Come on, that was a joke,’’ Astros catcher Martin Maldonado said. “It was a good pitch, and this guy hits it out. Even the hitter didn’t even know where the ball went.’’Perfect game or not, at least Cole got the victory by pitching eight innings, giving him 23 quality starts this season, including 18 in a row. He has pitched into the seventh inning 14 times this season. In the seventh and eighth innings, hitters are just 2-for-43 against Cole this season. “I tremendously value wins,’’ Cole said. “You have more of an opportunity than people think to impact a game through the tone that you can set. You can’t control everything, setting that tone is important.“The most rewarding thing to me is going deep into games, knowing you stood up, and did your job.’’ASTROS: Houston’s front office is running laps around baseballPLAYOFF PICTURE: Updated look at division, wild-card racesSays Verlander: “That’s why I love to watch Gerrit pitch. He’s got that old-school mentality. He wants to make every single start. If you want to be a Hall of Famer, you got to be on the mound.’’And in this age of analytics, Verlander insists, it’s time to quantify the amount of innings a starter provides. He has pitched at least 200 innings in all but one season since his rookie year, leading the major leagues three times and once again this season.“You can’t put a number on it because people can’t quantify how valuable it is,’’ Verlander says. “But the second they can put a number on an inning, and how valuable it is, it would be dramatic. Just saving the bullpen, the impact those extra innings have, and what that means, I don’t think anybody has ever tried to tackle that, I think it’s valuable. Extremely valuable.’’Says Astros reliever Collin McHugh: “What those guys are doing are huge for us. As a bullpen guy, everyone looks for that break. I still remember A.J. telling us, ‘Hey, if JV goes out and throws a no-hitter today, then you guys will get your day off in the bullpen.’ And he actually does it.’’There’s a tremendous amount of pride, too, for Cole and Verlander, that they’re putting up these types of numbers in the American League. They don’t want to degrade the accomplishments of their peers in the National League, but it’s a whole different animal pitching to the powerful AL lineups with a DH.“It’s different, very different, and I don’t think it’s talked about enough,’’ says Verlander, who has 222 career victories, and believes he can pitch long enough to reach 300. I mean, who would you rather face, J.D. Martinez or me at the plate?“In the National League, you can execute your way through the lineup and execute a game plan based on where you’re at throughout the order. In the American League, it’s like you’re going into a boxing match that doesn’t have a bell. You’re just bloodying yourself through the lineup as far as you can go.’’This is why it’s mind-boggling that in this era, it’s not so much the strikeouts Cole and Verlander are compiling, but the fact that fewer than one baserunner an inning is reaching base. While Cole values his quality starts and innings the most, Verlander’s favorite stat is WHIP.“Gerrit and I have talked about this a lot,’’ Verlander said. “I think WAR is a pretty fickle number for starting pitchers, but the WHIP, that’s our job, to limit baserunners. The batting average against is a nice stat, but if you’re walking three or four batters per nine innings, the way batters now count a hit as good as a walk for OPS, those walks might as well be hits.“Call me old-fashioned, but I still like ERA, too.’’Going old-school. And pitching for the Astros. Who would have thunk it?“For both of these guys, longevity in individual games,’’ Astros manager A.J. Hinch says, “that’s the throwback mentality. For such an analytically-driven team, we have two guys that believe they should finish their outings when they take the mound, third time in the order be damned. That to me is refreshing.“It’s funny. I’ve been asked whether we could go to an opener? Are we ever going to use our pitching the way Tampa does, some of the stuff LA does, and lot of smart teams?“My answer is the same: Not as long as I have Verlander and Cole.“You kidding?’’Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @BnightengaleAutoplayShow ThumbnailsShow CaptionsLast SlideNext Slide