It was the trade that almost didn’t happen. The Detroit Tigers barely made it under the wire last August when they agreed to a deal that sent ace Justin Verlander to Houston at the trade deadline. The transaction was approved by Verlander with only seconds remaining before the deadline at midnight on August 31.
But the deal did go through and Verlander left the only professional organization he had ever known, the club that had drafted him, the team he’d helped to two World Series and four division titles. It was a sucker punch to the gut for Tiger fans. It was a tough decision for Verlander, who consulted his fiancé before giving the Detroit front office the green light.
Whatever happened to Justin Verlander, anyway?
Well, that trade worked out pretty damn well for Mr. Verlander. Last October his new team won the World Series after the right-hander pitched brilliantly down the stretch. He won all five of his regular season starts, and was named MVP of the 2017 American League Championship Series when he dominated the Yankees in a pair of masterful outings. Verlander even exorcised some demons when he made two solid starts for the Astros in the World Series.
Days after the Fall Classic, Verlander married his fiancé. You’d be hard-pressed to find a baseballplayer who ever had a better five weeks than JV had after switching his Tiger duds for Astro threads.
I’m happy (very happy) for JV’s success since he left Motown. But I can’t help but recognize that Al Avila’s deadline deal last summer will most likely go down as one of the most shortsighted in the history of this franchise. Verlander is pitching like vintage Verlander in 2018 for the Astros, currently posting historic numbers as we enter the third month of the baseball season.
In 13 starts thus far in ’18, Verlander is 7-2, but those two losses don’t tell the story. The story starts with his amazing 1.24 ERA, which leads all of baseball. Verlander has been stingy in allowing baserunners too, surrendering only 46 hits and 17 walks in 87 1/3 innings. That gives him a league-best 0.721 WHIP, a figure that would be the lowest in any season by any pitcher in baseball history. The tall Virginian has fired one shutout and is striking out 10.4 batters per nine innings. A month ago on May 1, he mastered the Yankees again, striking out 14 batters in a three-hitter. On April 15 he tossed a one-hitter against the Rangers, and he allowed only two hits in his next start. In seven of his 13 starts, JV has allowed three hits or fewer. He’s been a stud. He was recently named the American League Pitcher of the Month for May.
Overall since the Tigers traded the best pitcher in their history, Verlander is 15-3 in 23 starts with an incredible 1.39 ERA. Proving his incredible dominance, in those 23 starts as a “Stroh, Verlander has struck out 185 batters (an average of more than 11 per nine innings pitched) while walking only 28.
The Tigers dealt Verlander because they made the commitment to “blow everything up” for a rebuild. As I’ve written elsewhere, I didn’t agree with this decision. Rather than sink the ship, the Tigers could have patched a few holes. At 35 Verlander is still a formidable pitcher, clearly. He’s throwing his fastball with better command than he did in his last few years in Detroit and he’s still hitting the high 90s on the radar gun.
We couldn’t have known Verlander would rebound, you say? He needed a change of scenery, you say?
Verlander has clearly been a different kind of pitcher his entire career. The speed bump he hit in 2014 was largely caused by an injury, one that sidelined him for the first time the following year. But once Verlander was healthy he pitched well in 2015 down the stretch and then proceeded to finish second in Cy Young voting in ’16 when he had one of his best seasons. He had a few rough outings early in 2017 but then he righted himself and was the best pitcher in the AL for a month before Avila decided to jettison him.
At 35, Verlander isn’t ancient. He’s in excellent shape: he keeps his legs (the primary source for his dominant fastball) in great condition and he works as hard on the craft of pitching as anyone in the game. This isn’t news. Verlander has always been a freakish athlete with a drive to be one of the best pitchers of all-time. The Tigers simply forgot or choose to ignore that fact.
The young prospects the Tigers got for Verlander are still deep in the farm system. Maybe all of them will become good big league pitchers. Maybe even one of them will be very good. But they won’t be as good as Verlander. I’d be willing to bet that it’s unlikely all of them combined will ever produce as much value in the future as Verlander will over the balance of his career.
Every generation there a small handful of pitchers who throw the baseball hard forever, who excel into their late 30s and even into their 40s. Long ago, Warren Spahn was one of those pitchers. Then there was Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton, followed by Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson. While other great pitchers peter out at 35 or 36 years old, these pitchers keep churning along. Verlander is that type of pitcher.
The former ace of the Tigers is putting up an historic season for the Astros and he might get another chance to pitch on the big stage of the postseason. That would be great for JV, and I’ll be rooting for him. It’s just too bad that the Detroit Tigers didn’t see what they had, because Justin Verlander is a great pitcher headed to the Hall of Fame. He’s a pitcher who could push a 78-win team to 85 wins and the playoffs. A clubhouse leader who could assist young pitchers. A guy who could dominate the opposition in big games. He’ll do it in 2018, but for another team.