Not so long ago, few doubted Justin Verlander's future consideration as an all-time great. After a miserable stretch in late May through June of 2013, Verlander rebounded in brilliant fashion in the second half and looked fully like the most dominant starter in the game during three brilliant postseason performances. His position as a future Hall of Famer seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Verlander had completed a five-year run as the best pitcher in the game, amassing more innings, strikeouts and fWAR than anyone else. Fresh off an MVP and Cy Young winning 2011 season, and an equally outstanding 2012, his mid-season rough patch in 2013 seemed just a momentary detour on the path to greatness.
Then on Jan. 9, 2014, word came down from Verlander and the Tigers that he'd undergone surgery to repair a core muscle injury sustained during offseason conditioning. While worrisome, the timing of the surgery left many predicting little to fear for the Tigers' ace. It was assumed that he'd simply report a few weeks after the other pitchers and catchers, with a complete rehab under his belt, and ready to pick up right where he left off.
Instead, the injury was but the beginning of an 18 month stretch in the wilderness for Verlander. As he battled both hitters and his own body, a rising tide of naysayers fairly tripped over one another in their eagerness to write him off as a pitcher in a steep and unrecoverable decline.
Those clarion calls of doom reached their cacophonous peak early in the 2015 season, as what was initially thought to be a minor triceps strain devolved into an extended stay on the disabled list, the first such trip of Verlander's career. As the Tigers' season quickly spiraled from May's concern into the debacle of June and culminated in Miguel Cabrera's Fourth of July injury, Verlander's continued absence seemed to herald the end of perhaps the greatest era of Tigers' baseball.
Yet, while the season proved unrecoverable, clearly Verlander's dominance was not. Finally healthy, and reaping the benefits of a full offseason's conditioning work on his legs and core, Verlander quickly turned back the clock and was one of the top pitchers in the game from August through September. The fastball command and velocity rebounded, and so did the whiffs against it.
As the year went on, Verlander's secondary pitches grew ever sharper en route to a 2.01 FIP in August, backed by a 3.01 mark in September. The sight of the big right-hander once again blowing away batter after batter with screaming fastballs around the edges of the plate, or carving them up with a sharp slider and monster curveball, was one of the few bright spots in a lost season.
It was a striking turnaround. Many of us predicted Verlander still had many good years ahead of him, but greatness? That was something few were willing to project. And yet everything we saw in those final three months was on a par with the best work he's ever done. The question is whether he can fully carry that level of performance forward for another few years. If he can, his spot in the Hall of Fame should be assured.
Comparing some of today's top pitchers
Currently, Verlander sits at 43.9 bWAR for his career, good for 136th on the all-time list for pitchers. A certain Dodgers left-hander sits just a little ways ahead of him at 47.2 bWAR, in 500 less innings than Verlander, in case you were wondering just how good Clayton Kershaw has been thus far in his career. Verlander has 157 wins to his name, and a career ERA of 3.52.
Among Hall of Fame pitchers, Dennis Eckersley and Dazzy Vance demarcate a fairly clear line at 62.5 bWAR. No one at or above that line has been excluded from the Hall of Fame with the exception of a few still under consideration or not yet eligible, such as Kevin Brown, Roy Halladay and Curt Schilling, plus Roger Clemens, who has his own barrier to entry to deal with.
Looking at another key indicator, Verlander is in fairly good condition right now. Bill James' Hall of Fame monitor gives JV a score of 112. The average Hall of Famer is set to a score of 100, while 130 would be a virtual lock.
Basically, with 20 additional wins above replacement, despite some variance between Fangraphs' and B-Ref's methodologies, and considering the MVP and Cy Young hardware he possesses, Verlander should have no trouble getting in. Obviously the BBWAA has something to say about that, and there are no hard and fast rules that guarantee entry, but for our purposes, 20 more WAR seems like a solid marker to judge by. So can he do it?
The past two seasons have taken their toll on his chances for sure. Verlander will turn 33 before the 2016 season begins. As easy as it is to predict success based on his second half performance in the short term, it's equally difficult to try and guess what he might still be capable of in his late thirties. Six more seasons would take him through age 38, and I'd say anything beyond that is gravy.
This is possibly the most durable, high-velocity arm the game has ever seen, and I'll take some comfort from the fact that the mileage has apparently taken a negligible toll on his elbow or shoulder. But while we've seen pitchers continue to post league average numbers into their early 40s, betting on it is foolish.
Verlander has to come out and dominate for another two seasons to polish his case for the Hall of Fame. While his skills remain for the most part undiminished by age, it's time to put his future candidacy in the bag. If he could rack up 10 more WAR in 2016-2017, he'd only need 10 more to make himself an extremely difficult guy for the BBWAA to pass on. It would still take a muted decline phase to make that happen, but with reasonably good health I'd be betting on him there. If he can even get close to that mark, you'd have to think his hardware and reputation will take him the rest of the way.
The faith comes from the way he pitched in the second half. His fastball still has good to great velocity when he wants it, and as much spin, and thus late movement, on it as anyone in the game. In other words, he's learned how to pitch successfully without aiming for triple digits. With his secondary stuff looking great, and his slider still improving, I think Verlander has already shown that he can dominate even without quite the incredible velocity and stamina he had in his prime years.
Another year or two near the top, and I think you can start planning on a table for two, with Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander entering the Hall together as the two men who defined an era of Tigers' baseball.