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Tigers’ Justin Verlander is back on a Hall of Fame track

The Tigers’ ace hopes to sustain his reign over the American League.

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The story is familiar now, even to those who don’t follow the Detroit Tigers. After a five year run as the best pitcher in baseball from 2009 to 2013, Justin Verlander was injured before the 2014 season. What followed were his worst seasonal numbers since 2008. Verlander was 31 years of age, and showed a marked decline in fastball velocity. Doom was pronounced far and wide by baseball fans and writers alike. Many concluded it was the end of the Tigers’ ace as a top-tier pitcher, and his path to baseball’s Hall of Fame looked in serious jeopardy.

Fortunately, Verlander has made those assumptions look a bit foolish. Over the past season and a half, he’s reclaimed his former spot as the American League’s best pitcher. In the process, a Hall of Fame candidacy that was looking a bit sickly two years ago now appears back on track. Even for the skeptics, his resurgence argues that it may not be long before questions about his career numbers are put to rest.

Active starting pitcher JAWS scores

Player JAWS Innings Strikeouts
Player JAWS Innings Strikeouts
Clayton Kershaw 51.6 1760 1918
CC Sabathia 49.6 3168.1 2726
Zack Greinke 48.9 2258.1 2025
Justin Verlander 45.7 2339 2197
Felix Hernandez 45 2415.2 2264
Cole Hamels 44.8 2214.1 2122

Clayton Kershaw is obviously in a class of his own. For his peak alone, Kershaw should have little trouble entering Cooperstown. And, beyond his own fine peak seasons, C.C. Sabathia has a lot of innings and several years on Verlander. The smart money would suggest that Sabathia will retire well before Verlander however, and upon eligibility, may not have much competition in his age cohort.

According to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS Hall of Fame prediction scores, Sabathia doesn’t have to do much more to distinguish him clearly from players of like age. Even though he may be a borderline case in total score, it’s hard not to see him as one of elite starting pitchers among those who began their careers around the turn of the century.

Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez and Cole Hamels are most likely the guys up for consideration on a similar timetable with Verlander. Right now, JAWS has Greinke in the lead. And there are guys who aren’t too far from pushing their way into the picture. Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, for example, are in a similar age range, have pretty good peak arguments already, and may well work their way into the picture in the years to come. And, of course, the JAWS methodology is by no means set in stone. It’s simply a reasoned attempt to predict how baseball writers will evaluate players in the future, based on how the BBWAA has voted in the past.

Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez will both enter the 2017 season attempting to mimic Verlander’s second act. Each is coming off one of the worst years of their career, and now they’re the ones hearing the whispers. And unfortunately for them, there isn’t an injury to recover from that has them woefully undervalued.

While they’ll look to get back on course, Verlander is primed to continue his outstanding run. His durability, and the fact that, at age 34, very little decline from his peak is yet in evidence, has him in position to leave Greinke and Hernandez in his wake in the years to come. The fact that he’s pitched some of the best baseball of his career in 2015-2016 augers well for a long tail to his outstanding career.

American League starters since 2015 All-Star game

Pitcher fWAR ERA Innings Strikeouts
Pitcher fWAR ERA Innings Strikeouts
Justin Verlander 8.4 2.97 330.2 349
David Price 7.5 3.57 325.1 338
Jose Quintana 7.2 3.12 299.2 257
Chris Sale 7.1 3.62 316 350
Corey Kluber 6.7 3.29 303.2 318

Verlander’s resurgence hasn’t been as much of a surprise to close followers of the Tigers. However, I don’t think anyone could have predicted that he would recover so much of his velocity. Verlander averaged 94.28 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball in 2016. That’s his best mark since averaging 94.71 mph way back in 2012. Even more impressive is that Verlander was topping 95 miles per hour on average over the final months of 2016. Father Time is undefeated, but Verlander has the score close to tied up entering his age 34 season.

We’ll have to wait and see where that trend finally levels off. Presumably, he won’t get all the way back to the days when a flurry of triple digit fastballs awaited hitters in the late innings as Verlander emptied his tank every five days, but we’ve also seen just how bad he’s capable of making his doubters look. The question is, when will his natural decline start to kick in? And how well can he adapt and evolve when it does?

People have speculated for years as to how Verlander could evolve as a pitcher to remain an effective and durable starter for many seasons beyond his hard-throwing prime. But, 11 full seasons into his career (and 2,339 innings deep), Verlander has pitched the past season and a half with some of the best pure stuff of his career.

While Verlander is in some ways a different pitcher than he was before the injury, the change mostly revolves around a rebuilt hard slider. In terms of his fastball, Verlander actually topped fifty percent usage last season for the first time since 2010. Whatever changes have come, they haven’t resulted in anything resembling a finesse approach. Someday we may yet see Verlander transition from a power pitcher into more of a control artist who relies on heavy doses of his secondary pitches, but that day seems much farther off than it did two years ago

Verlander still has a chance to get to 250 wins. That’s mostly a matter of durability from here on out. 3000 strikeouts, however, is well within range, as well as top fifteen all-time status in that regard. He has a Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and an MVP award to his name already. There is also a good case to be made that he should have another pair of Cy Young awards in his trophy case. And of course, the counting stats and hardware may be reckoned quite differently when Verlander comes up for consideration many years from now.

Unless Clayton Kershaw is to be enthroned as the last Hall of Fame pitcher, standards will have to change. Baseball players are always most effectively judged against their contemporaries. On that basis, the Tigers’ ace should have a very strong case when he finally hangs up his spikes. There is still work to be done, but more and more it looks like there will be a place in Cooperstown for Justin Verlander.