We are all prisoners of our own expectations. One of the casualties of those expectations can be perspective. And if perspective is lost, we’ve lost something very important.
I’m here to tell you folks, we’ve lost some perspective when it comes to the ace of the Tigers pitching staff. I’m talking about Justin Verlander, and yes, he’s still the ace.
For two years, from 2011 to 2012, Verlander was the best pitcher on the planet. He wasn’t just good, he wasn’t just great, he was otherworldly. Start after start, he dominated the competition with his blinding fastball, knee-buckling curve, and unflinching focus. Verlander pitched with, as Jim Leyland noted, “an arrogance.”
Whether he was measured by attitude, body language, the frustrated reaction of enemy batters, the movement and speed of his pitches, or the numbers, Verlander was as good as any pitcher ever was. “Right now, there’s no one better and I don’t remember ever seeing [a pitcher] throw that well,” Boston slugger David Ortiz observed on opening day in 2012, when JV kept the Red Sox scoreless in eight innings while allowing just two hits.
Over the span of 63 starts from August 2010 through the last day in July of 2012, he pitched into the sixth inning in every game he started. He won a Cy Young Award, came within an eyelash of winning another, and he won the Most Valuable Player Award (the first starting pitcher to do that in a quarter of a century). He had it all: All-Star Games, the cover of magazines and video game boxes, and a supermodel girlfriend.
His performance over those 2+ seasons sent expectations into the stratosphere. Detroit fans started to think that JV would shut out every opponent, strike out every batter, win every single game. But of course, that’s not reasonable. It never has been. Even the greatest pitchers in baseball history have had a mixture of great, good, average, and even bad seasons. Jim Palmer won the Cy Young Award in 1973 and 1975. In between, the future Hall of Famer went 7-12 with an ERA more than a full run higher. In the 1980s, Bret Saberhagen won the Cy Young twice: in 1985 when he was 21 years old and again in 1989 when he was 25. For the seven seasons surrounding those award-winning seasons, Saberhagen had a pattern of great season/mediocre season/great season/average season/good season. Even the very best pitchers of the modern era: Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and Roger Clemens, all had seasons where they were merely mortal. Pitching is a tough business.
Spoiled with his success, Tiger fans began to expect Verlander to deliver a dominating performance punctuated with 100 mile-per-hour fastballs every time he stepped on the hill. But big league hitters have other plans – they adjust, they test, they figure things out – and the pitcher also has to battle the fickle mechanics of his art. A dip of the arm here, a slant of the elbow there, the lengthening of the leg drive or holding on of the baseball a fraction of a second too long, any small deviation can mess it all up. That’s why when a pitcher is able to be as good as JV was for so long, it’s amazing – because any one of a thousand things can occur on any pitch that will mess his timing up. It’s impossible to take the ball 34-35 times a season (plus 3-4 starts in the postseason) and be perfect. But Detroit fans have been spoiled. As I wrote last season, we should appreciate Verlander, because what he’s done is unique.
As of this writing, in 2013, Verlander has 12 wins to his credit. He probably won’t reach the 17-win mark, the first time he’ll fail to do so since 2008. Teammate Max Scherzer will most likely win the Cy Young Award, and Anibal Sanchez might win the ERA title. Verlander could potentially finish 4th or 5th on his own staff in wins. However, a dose of perspective is in order here. Verlander has been human in 2013, yes, but he has not been terrible. In 20 of his 29 starts this year, he’s allowed three runs or fewer. 20 of 29, that’s not too shabby. Three runs or less is good enough to keep this team in the game. For those of you neandertals who still cling to the win/loss record to gauge how well a starting pitcher is doing, consider this: Verlander has a very respectable 3.19 ERA in his seven no-decisions. Even more telling: JV has lost two games in which he gave up just two runs, and four games where he’s surrendered three runs. His ERA in those six losses is 3.73 – hardly terrible, and considering the fact that Detroit’s offense is averaging more than five runs per game, it’s been good enough to keep his team in a position to win. His ERA is 16th in the league – it’s hardly like he’s become a #5 starter. He ranks in the top ten in strikeouts, and he still strikes fear in the hearts of opposing lineups. “He was vintage Verlander,” Nick Swisher said on Sunday, when Verlander shut down his Cleveland lineup for seven innings.
No, Verlander hasn’t been great in ’13, and as a legion of fans are more than eager to point out, he’s making enough money that he should be doing better. But, if you read the comments on the blogs, listen to the callers on talk radio, or peruse the Twitterverse and Facebook posts, you’d think Verlander should be sent to Toledo.
It’s September, and Justin can right his ship by stringing together a few “vintage Verlander” outings. He got off on the right foot on Sunday, and if it turns out that he finds that old form, I hope the fans who are ripping him now, will have the courtesy to cheer when he does what they expect him to do every time he steps on the mound.