Justin Verlander is about to begin his age 30 season. For most great pitchers, that would mean you’d know exactly what to expect: another predictable year of excellence during the peak period of a career. With Verlander, we’ll get that and much more: the continuation of his amazing process of innovative, smart improvement. And that’s one reason why again this season it will be an unmitigated joy watching him pitch.
I hope Tiger fans of any age grasp just how special Verlander is. Certainly it’s more obvious for those of us with a long history of baseball fandom. A talent of this magnitude visits the universe of the Tigers roughly as often as Halley’s comet. In their entire history, the Tigers have had only one legendary Hall of Fame pitcher: Hal Newhouser. (It’s a large step down from there to stalwarts like Dizzy Trout, Tommy Bridges, Jack Morris, and Mickey Lolich and to blazing comets Mark Fidrych and Denny McLain). But Verlander’s already had two of the club’s eight all-time best pitching seasons, as measured by WAR, and sometime in 2014 he’ll likely pass Morris, Trout, and Lolich and threaten Bridges for second place on the all-time Tigers career WAR list for pitchers.
A few past Tigers may have had physical skills nearly on par with Verlander’s, though other than Newhouser none lasted very long. But it’s what JV has made of his prodigious talents that’s really extraordinary. His work ethic is unstinting, and his concentration unwavering. But it’s his openness to continual improvement that makes a fan salivate every new season, and look forward to each new game.
I try never to miss watching a game Verlander pitches, partly because a no-hitter or a perfect game is always a possibility, but mostly because I flat-out love watching the man pitch. Most major league ballplayers learn on the job, but few keep their minds open to dramatic innovation once their career is established. It’s not just that Verlander makes “adjustments,” it’s that he’s continually weighing his strategy and options, batter to batter, situation to situation. It’s the kind of flexible, complex analysis that a chess master has. When you watch Verlander, you can almost see the wheels turning. He is always thinking. And he has grown greatly in this aspect: whereas earlier in his career he would sometimes let his emotions usurp his mental control when he got into jams, he now is steady as a rock and mentally in complete control. And, though a few seasons ago he might slip into the same approach game after game, now, as his confidence has visibly grown, he boldly pioneers new variations on his themes. A very observant fan who understands the nuances of the battle between pitcher and batter that is the crux of the game of baseball can see this—and know there is much more going on beneath the surface that is beyond a layman’s understanding.
Verlander studies every batter, adjusts his approach to each one with every at-bat, and modifies his overall strategy to stay a step ahead of his smartest opponents. Just within the last two seasons, Tiger fans have witnessed him (1) learn to start out a game with slower fastballs so he could save the really powerful stuff for when it’s most needed, and then (2) mix in some harder stuff early when opponents caught on to that strategy and began jumping on his fastballs early. That’s just an example at the very tip of the iceberg of his enormous adaptability.
Now add to all that his obvious love for the game. His demeanor is that of a craftsman who takes great pleasure in his craft but never lets the pressure mask or diminish his absolute joy in the task at hand.
Barring injury, I think his durability will be prodigious too. I am sure he is just as dedicated to his job during the off-season when we don’t see all the work. That ethic and determination pays off as the season progresses. No pitcher throws as many pitches as JV.
So what we have is a physical wonder who is a durable, joyful master of in-game tactics. We have a pitcher the likes of which I’ve never seen in a Tiger uniform.
We have the mind of Greg Maddux, the spirit of Mark Fidrych, and the dominance and dedication of Nolan Ryan. We have someone really, really special who is much more than the sum of these parts: we have Justin Verlander. Appreciate fully. No matter if you’re seven or seventy, you won’t see the likes of him again anytime soon, if ever.