It’s safe to say that without the return of Justin Verlander to the form that made him one of baseball’s best pitchers, the Detroit Tigers wouldn’t be where they are, fighting for a wild card spot.
And because Verlander has had one of his best seasons in 2016, it means that he could have an opportunity to right the only wrong of his career. If the Tigers can make a deep run in the postseason, Verlander can conquer the only stage he’s never conquered—the World Series.
It’s easy for Detroit fans to take Verlander for granted. He’s been so good so often for so long that we tend to expect perfection from the tall righthander from Virginia. There was a time when no-hit stuff meant every start by Verlander was “Must-See JV.”
Verlander is still stingy with the hits: through Sunday he’s allowed the fewest hits per nine innings of any pitcher in the American League (6.803). He also still has the strikeout stuff: he leads the AL in K’s and is third in K’s per nine innings. Many of his strikeouts in 2016 have come on his patented fastball, which he elevates more than he used to. Verlander also has a wicked curveball and slider that he relies on. But normally, JV tests his stuff over the first three innings or so and then picks one “out” pitch to use that day depending on how the opposition is reacting. Gone are the days of firing the ball past hitters at will. Verlander is a pitcher now more than he’s ever been.
It’s useful to look back at some of the most important accomplishments of Verlander’s great career:
- Only pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and MVP awards.
- Triple Crown (wins, ERA, strikeouts) winner in 2011.
- Two no-hitters and four one-hitters.
- Six-time All-Star, started the game in 2012.
- Has won at least 15 games in eight seasons.
- Has led the AL in strikeouts three times (and he leads in 2016).
- The innings pitched leader in MLB three times (and he leads in 2016).
Verlander has placed himself in some elite company. Consider this: if he leads baseball in innings pitched in 2016 he will become just the fourth hurler to accomplish that, joining Bob Feller, Robin Roberts, and Ed Walsh. Verlander is one of the few pitchers to have multiple no-hit games, others to do it include Feller, Randy Johnson, Cy Young, Warren Spahn, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax, and Nolan Ryan. Verlander is one of the few starting pitchers to win an MVP award. Some of the others to do it are Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Dizzy Dean, and Hal Newhouser. He and Roger Clemens are the only starting pitchers in the last 45 years to win the MVP. All of those other pitchers are in the Hall of Fame, except Clemens.
Also, listen to this: from August 22, 2010 to July 26, 2012, a stretch of nearly two years, Verlander went at least six innings in 63 consecutive starts. Only two other pitchers since 1918—Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton (Hall of Famers)— had longer streaks of starts with six innings or more. And Verlander’s streak is amazing because it’s not a product of modern trends, baseball managers are entrusting starting pitchers with fewer and fewer innings these days. But even back when starters were expected to go the whole way, they didn’t come near what Verlander did with his 63-game streak. From 1918 to 1966, the longest streak was 35 starts. And the only reason JV’s streak ended was Mother Nature, because his 64th game was shortened by rain after five innings. He actually pitched a complete game in the game his streak ended.
The feats I list above prove that Verlander is a once-in-a-generation talent. He’s not just a very good pitcher, he’s one of the greats. His competition for title as “Best Tiger Pitcher” is limited to a handful of guys: Newhouser, Mickey Lolich, and Jack Morris. As the 2016 regular season comes to a close, Verlander is on hot on their heels in wins, strikeouts, and innings pitched. Assuming he finishes out his current contract which binds him to Detroit until at least 2019, those records will all belong to Verlander eventually.
The Tigers have advanced to the postseason five times thus far in Verlander’s ten full seasons with the team. On that stage, JV has made a name for himself. Twice—in 2012 and 2013—Verlander pitched Game Five of the ALDS and won. In those two series, Verlander was a monster, going 3-0 while allowing one earned run in 31 innings while striking out 43 batters. Dominant. In four ALCS’s, Verlander is 3-2 with a 3.55 ERA, and in 2013 against the Red Sox, he spun a masterful game, going eight innings while allowing no hits until the fourth, striking out ten.
But there’s on stage where Verlander has yet to be a star: the World Series. Thus far, he’s made three starts in the Fall Classic, and he’s been very mortal. In Game One of the 2006 World Series against the Cardinals, Verlander gave up six earned runs in five innings and made a costly throwing error. Coming back in Game Five, Verlander pitched better but made another throwing error that was his undoing. He lost both games and the Tigers were bounced. In 2012 against the Giants in the World Series, JV again drew the Game One assignment, but he ran in to Pablo Sandoval, who hit a pair of homers off Verlander, who was knocked out after four innings. It was his only loss of the postseason and it set the sweep in motion, as the Giants brushed aside the Tigers.
In all, Verlander has made 16 postseason starts. His record in the ALDS and ALCS is 7-2 in 13 starts with a 2.70 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 83 1/2 innings. He has a shutout on his record, a rarity in the postseason in this era.
But in his three World Series starts, Verlander has looked more like a #5 starter than an ace. He’s 0-3 with a 7.20 ERA in 15 innings.
There are great pitchers who never accomplished some of the things Verlander has thus far in his career. Tom Seaver never won an MVP award. Steve Carlton never threw a no-hitter, let alone two of them. Nolan Ryan never won a Cy Young Award. Warren Spahn never pitched 63 consecutive games of at least six innings. Roger Clemens never led baseball in innings pitched four times. Greg Maddux never won the Triple Crown.
However, many of the great pitchers have shown their brilliance on baseball’s biggest stage. So far, Verlander has been unable to do that. In 2016 or beyond, he has that one final goal to achieve.