The Detroit Tigers are in first place and their pitching staff is a big reason why. They rank fourth in the American League in ERA and they’ve shut out their opponent four times already this season.
They’ve done that despite not getting one pitch from Justin Verlander. Their former ace is sidelined indefinitely with an injury to his triceps. It’s the first time Verlander has been on the disabled list, and it’s only the second time he’s ever even missed a start. The former MVP and Cy Young Award winner was once the centerpiece of the Detroit rotation and a workhorse who took the ball every five days without fail. But whether it’s the heavy workload, his age, or Kate, Verlander has been a shadow of his former self for about 24 months now. How long ago does 2013 ALDS Game Five against the A’s (Again) feel now?
As I wrote recently, there’s not much mystery as to why pitchers are getting injured more often. It was probably only a matter of time before JV succumbed to a withered wing. But admit it: he looked invincible for about seven years there, so it seems almost unfathomable that the Tigers can be great without him. But so far in 2015 they’re turning the page. The question is: when Verlander comes back (whenever that is), how good can he be?
Forget about great — can Justin Verlander ever be a good starting pitcher again?
To answer that, let’s look back at history. How many pitchers with Verlander’s track record rebound from inconsistency and an injury at this stage of their career? JV turned 32 during spring training in February, an age when many pitchers are winding down their careers (the average length of a big league career is four seasons and even a good starting pitcher lasts about seven seasons and is done by the age of 30). JV isn’t just another pitcher of course, he looked like a future Hall of Famer for a solid five-year stretch or so. He fired two no-hitters, he had a season for the ages, he threw the baseball 101 miles per hour IN THE NINTH INNING.
We don’t know the full extent of Verlander’s injury yet, whether he’ll need surgery on his once-magic arm. But even if he does have to go under the knife there’s a good chance that he’ll be able to rebound. In the last two decades “Verlander-like” pitchers have a great track record of going deep into their careers. Curt Schilling, another strong right-hander who struck out a lot of batters and was known for his grit and determination, suffered an injury in his late 20s and then missed several starts in his age 33 season with a tired arm, but that was before he finished second in the Cy Young award three times and helped pitch the Diamondbacks and Red Sox to three World Series titles. John Smoltz also rebounded from an injury mid-career to go on to cement his place in the Hall of Fame.
Verlander is probably not a Hall of Famer like Smoltz, nor does he have a string of great seasons like Schilling, but there are many other pitchers who have come back from adversity after they came up against the Big 3-0.
One of the things that makes dominant, hard-throwing pitchers so great is their strong will and competitive nature. Think Orel Hershiser pumping his fist, Jack Morris refusing to allow a run in Game Seven, and the scowl of Randy Johnson. But the other side of that can be a negative: that same pitcher can stubbornly refuse to adapt as he starts to lose some of his velocity. The “need for speed” is more attractive than the need to survive. They still try to throw hard, they still try to overpower hitters, they still try to be “The Man.” But if they do accept the inevitable, that they can’t throw a baseball through a barn wall forever (I’m NOT looking at you Nolan Ryan and Big Unit), they can remake themselves into something else. They can still be valuable.
I get the feeling Verlander has been fighting the inevitable a bit the last two seasons. While he knows he can’t go 8-9 innings every game, he’s still been trying to approach hitters the same way. To overpower them. But I hope his stint on the DL delivers the message loud and clear: it’s time to pitch more and throw hard less. It’s time to use the muscle above your neck a lot more and strain the muscles in your arm a little less. If he does that, JV should become good again, if not very good or even great. Will he win another MVP or Cy Young? It’s not likely, but it wouldn’t shock me. He’s very gifted and he’s smart enough to be a fine pitcher for a long time.
The Tigers can win without Verlander, they’re proving that. But it would be much more fun to do it with him.