Verlander, Leyland said in Spring Training, could pitch as well as or better than last year and still not win as many games.
And maybe Verlander saw it coming, too.
"One of the things I try to tell myself: 'Don't try to pitch to an encore,'" Verlander said on Opening Day. "That's not the right way to go about it. Try to become a better pitcher. If the numbers are better or worse, so be it. But if I can look at myself at the end of the year and say I was a better pitcher than I was the year before, that's what I want to accomplish."
Verlander's season isn't over yet. Knowing his focus is on leading the Tigers to the World Series after falling short last year, how he fares in the postseason will play a big role on how he looks at his season. That starts Saturday at Comerica Park at 6 p.m. ET on TBS, where Verlander will deliver the first pitch of the Tigers' postseason to open their AL Division Series against the A's.
The right-hander will be battling an Oakland lineup that has proven deceptively productive down the stretch. That's nothing compared to Verlander's biggest opponent at times this year: Himself.
As far back as the flight home from last October's AL Championship Series loss, Verlander was among the Tigers talking about how they could get better as players. The difficulty in following up a season like Verlander had last year is that it makes very good outings seem ordinary. Before Miguel Cabrera laid claim to the AL Triple Crown tag, Verlander owned it in Detroit for the pitching version -- wins, ERA and strikeouts.
When the fireballer doesn't strike out more than a batter an inning, people wonder what went wrong. That standard, Verlander said Tuesday, is gone.
"I want to win a World Series. I don't care what I do," he said. "I think, obviously, I want to be a big part if we do win the World Series, but I don't care if I give up five if we score six and win. Who cares? If we score two, I'd like to give up zero."
Verlander has shown again that he can -- he gave up two earned runs over 28 innings in his final four starts to the regular season, including six scoreless innings on five hits with five strikeouts on Sept. 19 against these same Oakland A's at Comerica Park. He won AL Pitcher of the Month honors for September as a result, and he played no small role in Detroit's second straight division title.
The main reason for the success, though, was that Verlander broke away from last year's habits, stopped pacing his fastball and started throwing harder in the opening innings after the Royals and Angels both jumped him early. Verlander won't exactly be hitting triple digits in the first inning like he did in the All-Star Game, but he's hitting 95 mph and up from the start.
He made the adjustment a few weeks ago, knowing there would be a price to play in efficiency. Leyland told Verlander he will take care of the pitching decisions if pitching stronger earlier in the game costs him later.
That aforementioned outing against the A's, coincidentally, might be the perfect example.
Verlander blanked Oakland two weeks ago, all right, but he threw 122 pitches over those six innings to do it, including a 27-pitch second inning and a 24-pitch third. He gave up five hits and struck out five through his first three innings, both totals serving to balloon his pitch count.
"Every single one of their guys battled," Verlander said Friday, "throwing seven-, eight-, nine-pitch at-bats. And those are tough. But I was able to maintain, just keep my game plan and continue to throw strikes and make them put the ball in play eventually."
Those are the types of pitch counts and at-bats that can become more prominent in the postseason.
"The game's a little bit different in the playoffs, more involved around pitching," Verlander said. "Runs are more scarce. Teams play a little bit more small ball, station-to-station stuff, get the runner over, that type of thing. The Yankees, they go all year trying to hit homers, and they do. But then you get to the postseason, and then all of a sudden you see guys taking the extra base and really giving themselves up to get the guy over, things like that."
Verlander went through those postseason at-bats last year. That's one aspect where last season is more of a pragmatic example than an impossible standard for him.