Drew VerHagen has quickly risen through the Tigers organization since he was drafted just two years ago.
The 23-year-old pitcher began this season with the Mud Hens, even though he is in just his second full year as a pro, an atypical and remarkable ascent.
“They’ve given me a lot of good opportunities,” VerHagen said of the Tigers. “I’ve heard that said about this organization: They will challenge you.”
AT THE PLATE: Drew VerHagen
Now the challenge for the young right-hander, according to Toledo manager Larry Parrish, is find the best way to translate his skills into success.
“He’s a guy with good arm and good talent,” Parrish said. “He’s still trying to find out what kind of pitcher he should be.
“He pitches ‘young.’ He’s starting to realize he can throw 10 pitches and get three ground-ball outs rather than throw 20 pitches to get three strikeouts.”
Do not misunderstand: VerHagen’s numbers in his first Triple-A season are solid. He entered Tuesday’s start at Indianapolis with a 4-7 record but a 3.86 ERA, having allowed 94 hits in 91 innings but also having walked just 22 while fanning 52.
One reason for the losing record, VerHagen said, is the challenge of facing Triple-A hitters for the first time.
“You’re not able to get away with mistakes at this level,” he said. “Whether it’s a hitter’s count or pitcher’s count, hitters will capitalize on your mistakes.
“I’ve seen that when I keep my fastball down in the [strike] zone and stay within myself, I experience success. When I am up in the zone, I give up some runs.”
But as a young professional, VerHagen also is starting to learn what kinds of things he will need to repeat — and what things he will have to avoid — to be successful in baseball’s higher levels.
“Some times he is a sinkerballer with his pitches down in the zone, and other times he’s a power pitcher with a hard fastball,” Parrish said of VerHagen. “I think some of it is he wants to be a power guy, but I think, in time, he will realize the sinking fastball that gets ground balls is a more successful pitch.
“Ground balls, even when they get through, normally are just singles. Fly balls turn into doubles and triples and homers. And it takes a lot of singles to score runs.”
VerHagen realizes young pitchers have to fight the temptation to just throw harder when they are in trouble.
“I found that when I try to throw harder, my fastball flattens out a little bit,” he said.
“When I stay smooth and easy, I get better sink. When I stay smooth and easy and within myself, that makes my fastball better.”
And the temptation is even harder to resist when VerHagen’s fastball can touch the mid-90s.
“I get a lot of ground balls when my fastball is on,” VerHagen said. “My fastball has a lot of sink, and I pitch off that.
“Whenever my curveball and change-up are on, they keep hitters off my fastball, and that helps.”
VerHagen has worked with Toledo pitching coach Al Nipper on a “foshball,” the change-up made famous by former Padres closer Trevor Hoffman.
“There are days when I have a good feel for it, and there are days when I cut it off,” he said. “I just have to focus on staying fluid with that pitch, because that’s when I get the best speed differential between it and my fastball.”
AT THE PLATE with Drew VerHagen
■ Position: Pitcher.
■ Ht./Wt.: 6-6/230.
■ Hometown: Rockwall, Texas.
■ Age: 23.
■ Nickname: Vergy.
■ Favorite way to spend time away from the field: I just bought a hammock, and I just like to find a couple of trees and lay in my hammock.
■ Baseball player you admired growing up: I was a Rangers fan, and I loved Rusty Greer a lot. And I also liked John Wetteland.
■ Favorite sport other than baseball: College football.
■ Favorite sports team: Vanderbilt (his alma mater).
■ Favorite music: Country and alternative rock. Right now I’m listening to the Randy Rogers Band and Wade Bowen. And I have always enjoyed George Strait.
■ Favorite meal: My favorite type of food is Mexican, but I also really enjoy chicken wings.
■ Favorite beverage: Sweet tea.
■ Favorite movie: The Shawshank Redemption.
■ Favorite TV show: I am in the middle of Breaking Bad, and I also am a big fan of The Sopranos.
■ Do you have a Twitter account? @DrewVerHagen.
■ Person you most admire: My dad and mom, Glen and Margie. They are the ones I turn to when I need advice or need someone to lift my spirits.
■ If you could meet any person, who would it be? I think Ty Cobb would be interesting to talk to. I have heard he’s a nut, and it may be inappropriate, but I would love to hear some of his crazy stunts and stories.
■ Top sports moment: Winning the Florida State League at Lakeland in 2012.
■ Baseball superstitions: I floss my teeth before every start.
■ Something nobody knows about you: I wear socks 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It would be very hard to find me without socks on, especially warm wool socks.