Raise your hand if you thought Justin Verlander would return to being the ace of the Tigers staff this season.
Now raise your hand if you thought JV would become one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball ever again.
Now stand up and shout if you thought that during this season Verlander would turn in the best four-start stretch of his career and almost pitch a third no-hitter.
Notice I didn’t raise my hand even once?
Like almost everyone else I know, I didn’t think Verlander was capable of becoming anything more than a shadow of his old self ever again, much less coming within an inch of doing something only five other pitchers in the history of the game have ever done—pitch a third no-hitter.
We all know the depressing narrative of the past couple seasons—how Verlander struggled through core surgery and other injuries, how he lost crucial velocity on his fastball, how he struggled with his command, how on the wrong side of thirty he seemed to clearly be on a typically precipitous downward trajectory for aging major league pitchers, how as a result the Tigers were saddled for years to come with a horribly expensive contract for a player who was now a bottom-line liability.
Surprise! All this suddenly turns out not to be true. What Verlander has done of late is almost unprecedented. What other pitcher was so good for so long, struggled for such a significant period of time, and then returned to become as good as ever? I can’t think of a comparable career.
After coming off the DL in June, Verlander’s first four starts were horrible—6.75 ERA, 1.59 WHIP. Then a very good outing against Minnesota was followed by his worst outing of the year, and one of the very worst of his career, against Baltimore. He was clearly searching to find a groove. He had two more excellent starts before he began August by giving up five runs against Kansas City, the league’s best team.
In the four starts after that, he gave up a total of one run in twenty-nine innings of work—against Boston, Houston, Texas, and the Angels, all good-hitting teams—and a total of twelve hits and eight walks for a WHIP of 0.69.
Include the three previous games, with the mediocre performance against the Royals, and his total for the seven-game stretch was a 1.90 ERA and a 0.79 WHIP.
These are great numbers for anyone. His August, as measured by his 1.50 ERA, was one of the best months of his career, exceeded only by June 2011, when he was 6-0 with an 0.92 ERA, and June 2006, when his ERA was 1.01 but he made only four starts.
What we’ve just witnessed is a pitcher struggling for a month or so to regain his command, then finding it, then sharpening it, then clicking into gear. It’s an incredible testament to JV’s work ethic, to his determination, and to his persistence.
It’s premature to say with 100 percent certainty that the Verlander of 2011-12 is back. But he might be even better, because now he’s added the experience of overcoming adversity—the final ingredient in a great pitcher’s arsenal.
Some exceptional pitchers did get better with age. In the past, Verlander had the work ethic, but he was getting by mostly on his great talent and physical prowess. Now, he’s had to go through the agony of rehabbing physically and reinventing himself, figuring out how to be just as good with a peak 97 mph fastball as he was with a peak 100 mph heater, changing his game plan to suit whatever pitches are working for him that day—in sum, becoming much smarter and a more complete pitcher. He is obviously strong again, hurling 106-112 pitches in each of those last seven games.
If he breaks down again, even a little, he now has the wisdom and the experience to know how to get through it.
The importance of what he’s accomplished recently may be somewhat obscured by Detroit’s dismal slide into last place. But JV now has an excellent chance at becoming the first player ever to win Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, Most Valuable Player, and Comeback Player of the Year awards. And his resurrection gives Tiger fans a much-needed silver lining in what’s been an awfully disappointing season—and reason to hope for next year and beyond.