‘Dude, it was lonely’: Ex-Tiger VerHagen survives isolation, then thrives in Japan

Detroit News

Chris McCosky
| The Detroit News

Detroit – When Drew VerHagen said goodbye to his family and girlfriend in January, he figured he’d see them again in a couple of months. He had signed to pitch for the Nippon Ham-Fighters of the Japan Pacific League. He would send them plane tickets to Sapporo when he got settled. No big deal.

Little did he know, he wouldn’t see them again for 11 months.

“If you were to talk to me in mid-May, this would have been a much different conversation,” said VerHagen, the former Tigers’ right-hander, back home now in the Dallas-Fort Worth area after completing a successful first season in Japan. “I was a little bit miserable and mad like the rest of the world at that point.”

Just before opening day, baseball in Japan, like it did here, shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It left the 30-year-old VerHagen holed up in his apartment in Sapporo, unfamiliar with the city, the language, the money, the customs – about as isolated as a person can be.

“Dude, it was lonely, it really was,” he said. “We weren’t practicing as a team or anything. I was just in Sapporo alone. Even when you went out, it was like, ‘I’m going to the grocery store today, this is exciting.’ But no one can even understand what you are saying.”

He was able to train at the team’s indoor complex, three days on, one day off. His apartment had a full kitchen, so he could cook for himself some. When he needed to order out, he could call one of the team’s translators to help him out. Still, it started to feel like solitary confinement. 

“I was alone a lot,” he said. “It made it difficult being in a foreign country, especially because we weren’t supposed to be going out. If I had that kind of down time in a regular year, I would be out exploring and seeing all kinds of stuff.”

Sapporo, located on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido and the country’s fifth largest city, sits in the shadow of a couple of mountain ranges, with several rivers meandering through. The city is stuffed with parks and museums – a veritable wonderland.

In a normal year, VerHagen would have taken in as much of the city as he could – visited landmarks both quirky (the beer museum) and renown (Museum of Modern Art). He certainly would’ve experienced the annual Soran Festival, akin to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and sampled the variety of restaurants Sapporo has to offer.

Instead, he bought a bunch of books, a Play Station-4 and a Netflix subscription and locked it down.

“I was pretty much just stuck in the apartment for two months,” he said. “The borders were closed. It started to set in that I wasn’t going to see my family, my girlfriend or anyone for a whole year, and that made it a little tough.”

Once in a while he’d be invited to dinner by Nick Martinez and his wife. Martinez, the former Texas Rangers pitcher, was one of three other English-speaking players on the Ham-Fighters. But what really pulled him through were the video chats with his parents and twice daily phone calls with his girlfriend Makenna.

“My parents were constantly reassuring me,” VerHagen said. “They were locked in, too. They’d say, ‘You aren’t missing a thing here. I can promise you that. Just try to stay calm. Take the time to read some books or whatever.’”

Mercifully, the shutdown in Japan was two months shorter than it was in the U.S.

“Once we started playing again, I was able to go out and eat, see the culture a little bit and start getting a little closer to the guys,” VerHagen said. “It was a breeze through the second half of the year.”

Looking back, those lonely months are just a very small part of this chapter for VerHagen.

“It wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been,” he said. “I was still able to go to the indoor facility and work out and our pay didn’t get cut one bit. We got paid our full salary.”

Adapt and thrive 

In his six big-league seasons, the Tigers used VerHagen like a human toggle switch – up and down from Detroit to Triple-A Toledo, back and forth from the starting rotation to the bullpen. He signed with the Ham-Fighters primarily for the opportunity to start and remain in a rotation for a full season.

He responded with arguably the best season of his professional career. He made 18 starts, posted an 8-6 record with a 3.22 ERA and 1.075 WHIP. In 111.2 innings, he struck out 115 and walked just 29. He ended his season with a complete-game shutout.

“Just being able to start every week, just doing my bullpens and making every start, my entire delivery and all my pitches just got homed in to where my misses were a lot smaller,” he said. “I was a lot sharper and more precise with everything.”

Funny how that works. A consistent routine and a consistent schedule lead to consistent pitching mechanics. Go figure.

“That was a big reason I went there,” VerHagen said. “To get that opportunity to start. I’d see flashes of that when I’d go to Toledo. I knew what I could do as a starter and (the Ham-Fighters) gave me that opportunity.

“My second start was a rough one and the pitching coach was like, ‘You’re not going anywhere. Just keep working and fine-tuning.’ There’s always pressure if you create it, but there was no pressure of me getting set down if I had a bad start. I was able to focus on my stuff and it steadily improved.”

With the Tigers, VerHagen relied mostly on his heavy sinker, his 12-to-6 curveball and a slider. He worked mostly at the bottom of the strike zone. In Japan, he incorporated a four-seam fastball, which became an out-pitch for him.

“I just saw improvement over the course of the year with the four-seamer,” he said. “The spin rate got better and better and it became a true four-seam fastball. I was putting guys away with it. I never had that late life on my fastball before.”

There were some adjustments to be made, though. They play a lot of small ball in Japan, a lot of bunting and running. Holding runners wasn’t necessarily a strength of the long-limbed, 6-foot-6 VerHagen. Out of necessity, it became one.

“In spring training the coaches were really harping on me to be quicker to the plate,” he said. “They told me, ‘You are going to give up a lot of stolen bases.’ During the shutdown I worked on it some, but I was mostly just keeping my stuff somewhat sharp.”

He regrets not heeding their advice. Opponents ran at will against him in his first two starts.

“I realized I was giving up these cheap runs,” VerHagen said. “I’d be pitching well, but I’d be giving up three runs when I should’ve given up zero or one run. It was starting to add up. That was the biggest adjustment.”

He worked on a modified slide step and his pick-off move. He held the ball and varied his times to the plate and eventually he not only managed the run game better, he started to have fun with it. He enjoyed that cat-and-mouse game with the runners.

But there were other aspects of the Japanese game that he still doesn’t quite get. Like some of the routine substitution patterns.

“They make a lot of in-game substitutions that you’d never see in the states,” he said. “For instance, a starter goes seven shutout innings, and he goes back out for the eighth inning with a new catcher. I could not believe it.

“They subbed the catcher out almost every single game regardless of the score. They just like to make that move. I have no idea why. I’ve never really wrapped my mind around that one.”

Early on VerHagen was watching hitters go through their workouts. He’d see guys taking soft toss, only they weren’t trying to hit the ball straight. Normally, hitters line up in front of a screen and hit the ball directly into it.

“They were facing away from the net and they were trying to foul the ball off into the net,” VerHagen said. “They work on spoiling pitches, working on fouling them off, and it shows in the games. They just spoiled everything. Even when I threw my nastiest curveball or slider, they’d do a pretty good job of spoiling it.

“They are pretty disciplined too. They don’t chase a whole lot. But at the same time, if you hang a breaking ball, you might not get hurt as bad. Maybe it’s just a single and doesn’t land 10 rows deep.”

VerHagen, like all the starting pitchers in Japan, made one start a week. The entire league has every Monday off (Monday and Thursday in a full season). He threw two bullpens and maintained his strength and conditioning program. It’s a structure that took some getting used, but given how strong he felt after 111 innings, he’s an advocate for it now.

“You just have to accept that that is the way they do it,” he said. “It’s different, in the way they run their team and the way they go about practice, the game decisions – it’s very different baseball. I was kind of scratching my head at times, like, ‘Why?’

“Then I realized, you can’t apply your culture to a different country. There is a completely different set of cultural norms over here. I just appreciated that these people are extremely polite, extremely considerate of other people and so easy to share a locker room with.”

Japan – the encore 

And you know what else, he never got sick of eating rice and ramen. The sushi and seafood are the best he’s ever eaten. He got to the point where, through the universal non-verbal language of baseball, he could communicate with his teammates, even share in some of the clubhouse jokes and comradery.

But when he got back to Dallas earlier this month, he wondered if anyone in the Major Leagues had taken notice. In a shortened season, where top of the rotation pitchers made 12 starts and threw less than 90 innings, wouldn’t they be intrigued by a veteran pitcher who’d made 18 starts and threw 111 innings?

He asked his agent to poke around and see if there was a team who’d give him a rotation spot for 2021. The answer was no.

“I thought the same thing,” VerHagen said. “I told my agent, ‘Somebody has to have use for me. You’re telling me I can’t fit in one of these rotations over here?’ He said, ‘Unless you want to agree to be pushed back to the bullpen; we could get that done. But a for-sure starting slot in a rotation, I think they want to see it from you for another year.’”

So, that’s what will happen. VerHagen happily accepted a team option from the Ham-Fighters to return in 2021.

“I really do think that after another year I would be in a better position if I continue to improve like I have been,” he said. “I’m actually kind of excited about going back.”

Hopefully without the pandemic’s shackles. He’d love to be able to go back and experience all the attributes and charms of Sapporo and the Japanese culture that he missed this year. He’d love for his parents, and especially Makenna, to come over with him.

Oh yeah. Speaking of VerHagen’s success stories in 2020:  Despite an 11-month, 6,000-mile separation, his relationship with Makenna has survived.

“Yeah, surprisingly, we made it through,” VerHagen said, laughing. “It could have easily gone the other way, but instead it made us stronger.”

He could say the same thing about himself.

Twitter @cmccosky

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