Why Justin Verlander is a big deal

Over the last three seasons, Justin Verlander is 61-23 with more than a strikeout per inning.

At some point this season Justin Verlander will be a “trending” topic on social media. A flurry of tweets and status updates will spark over the digital horizon. It’ll probably happen a few times.

He’s that sort of special pitcher. One rarely seen in baseball. A couple times this season he’ll be in the 7th inning – or even the 6th inning – and will not have allowed a hit. That’s all it takes for the speculation to start buzzing.

His curveball will be bending. His fastball will be popping. His changeup will be making hitters look foolish. He’ll have “that look” – the look he had last May in Toronto. Verlander has the sort of stuff that will lead to another no-hitter someday, most likely. When it will come, we don’t know. It’s not easy throwing a no-hitter, it takes some luck too. But every generation or so a pitcher comes along who makes 1-2-3 look easy. That’s why Detroit fans are so excited about their ace.

It hasn’t always been this way in Detroit. This is a city that usually cheers for the batters in the Tigers lineup. Going back to Hank Greenberg and Rudy York, and Al Kaline and Rocky Colavito, Norm Cash and Willie Horton, Kirk Gibson and Alan Trammell, and Prince’s papa, Big Daddy. Now there’s Miguel Cabrera and Fielder.

But now this city is addicted to “Must-See JV” like a sci-fi geek was to “Lost”.

When a starting pitcher is the face of your franchise it makes things extra interesting. He’s on the hill every fifth day, which means fans huddle over their schedule to count the days ahead to when he’ll be on the mound. They plan their trip to Detroit around JV’s starts. They don’t go out of the house the nights that he’s starting. They DVR other shows when he’s pitching.

This is the first time the Tigers have had this sort of drawing card since Mark Fidrych in the magical summer of 1976. But “The Bird” was a limited run, a short-lived mini-series we all loved for a few weeks but then was gone. And Fidrych didn’t have the stuff Verlander has. You have to go back to Hal Newhouser – the Tigers “Prince” – to find a hurler who had the cache and the repertoire of JV. But even Hewhouser, a lefty with a tremendous breaking ball and an above average fastball, didn’t have the stuff that the current Tiger ace has. Newhouser is in the Hall of Fame, so what does that say about JV’s talent?

Verlander is a big deal because he’s one of the few guys in baseball history who’s armed with no-hit stuff every time out. The group includes Bob Feller and probably Walter Johnson a generation earlier, and Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton and Bob Gibson. Tom Seaver was one of these guys, as was of course, Nolan Ryan. But Ryan never won an MVP or even a Cy Young. He had incredible stuff, maybe the greatest arm ever, but Ryan never quite seemed to be a polished “pitcher” – not like Verlander has become. Dwight Gooden and Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, they belong in that class too. The group is small, very very small. Detroit fans are lucky to have a pitcher like Verlander to watch every fifth game. We should savor it.

These are the prime years for Verlander – it’s his time. He’s big and strong and still young. At times he seems to be toying with batters, making a mockery of the art of pitching by doing things we rarely see. When he has his curveball going, it’s like the clouds have parted and God himself has reached down and touched his right shoulder, to allow him to show off what the human body is capable of. As if to say, “Here’s a guy with 105-MPH stuff and a bender that will make you cry.”

Is it too much? Is the praise heaped too high? I don’t think so. What the Tigers have in uniform #35 is a special talent, a rare animal. A blend of skill, command, presence, and unyielding determination. Verlander doesn’t want to be good. He doesn’t even want to be great. He wants to be the best there ever was. Can he be? These are the days when he answers that question, and I for one, don’t want to miss any of it.

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