Long-time Detroit Tigers ace, Justin Verlander, took home the American League Cy Young award on Wednesday. He and Sandy Alcantara of the Miami Marlins, were announced as unanimous winners of the award for best pitcher of the year in either league. This was Verlander’s third Cy Young award, to go along with his 2011 MVP and 2006 Rookie of the Year hardware and a pair of rings, but this had to be the most special one of them all for the 39-year-old right-hander.
No one has ever returned from Tommy John surgery and a year and a half away from the game to dominate like Verlander did this season. To do it at his age is all the more remarkable. The Tigers’ fanbase has largely known this for years, but if anyone needed proof that Justin Verlander is one of the rarest talents the game has ever produced, the 2022 season provided a final closing argument. And there still isn’t another pitcher in the game I’d bet on being more valuable for at least another two seasons, if not more.
While Verlander certainly deserved it, this has all been a bit painful for fans of the Detroit Tigers. The homegrown best pitcher in Tigers’ history has gone onto three of his greatest seasons and two World Series rings leading the Houston Astros’ rotation. Rarely is a fanbase put in this position in baseball. Imagine St. Louis Cardinals fans had they traded Albert Pujols in 2009 and watched him go on to some of his greatest years with the Los Angels Angels while they won two World Series titles. The scenario doesn’t present itself that often, and rarely does a player sustain their peak and even improve the way Verlander has in the latter stages of his career.
It’s a rare and bittersweet thing to watch a true franchise legend, drafted, developed, and dominant well into their mid-30’s, ascend to an even higher tier in the sport’s history after getting dealt away as a cost saving measure. We would love to see Chris Ilitch make amends and bring Verlander home to end his career in Detroit. As always, they have the financial firepower to make this happen and still provide all the payroll room required to improve the offense. For now though, we can presume Verlander simply doesn’t want to play for a team slated to be mediocre at best without him.
Hall of Fame resume
Justin Verlander was a lock for the Hall of Fame already when the Tigers traded him, but in his time with the Astros he’s moved into easy first ballot territory. Only 11 major league pitchers have three or more Cy Young awards. The only to have more than three are Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux with four, Randy Johnson’s five awards, and Roger Clemens with seven total. Verlander should’ve won in 2016, and arguably in 2012 and 2018 as well. Of course, Gerrit Cole certainly had as good a case as Verlander in 2019, and awards aren’t the end all, be all anyway.
Verlander is currently 12th all-time in strikeouts with 3198. Max Scherzer is right behind him with 3193. Assuming he can punch out 200 more hitters the next two seasons and keep going a little while longer, Verlander makes a very good bet to catch Tom Seaver for sixth all time at 3640. Bert Blyleven is in fifth with 3701 and certainly within range. Even becoming the fifth ever to reach the 4000 strikeouts plateau isn’t all that far-fetched.
In truth, Verlander has 3428 strikeouts already anyway if we include his 207 2⁄3 innings of postseason work. It doesn’t really make much sense to me to leave out postseason work for pitchers who throw multiple postseason starts every year as compared to those pitching in a time without playoffs, or when there was only a league championship series. Sure, some pitchers just don’t get those opportunities for team reasons rather than individual performance reasons, but modern pitchers still have to pitch those innings and carry that extra uncredited workload into the offseason and into their next spring camp.
Verlander also carries a record of 244-133, 56th all-time in career wins. We don’t talk about pitcher wins anymore because they don’t matter in the high velocity, short start era we’re in now, but it’s fairly likely he’ll be the last to clear 250 wins unless the game radically changes again sometime in the unforeseeable future. Scherzer is 38 and while still awesome, has 201 wins total. Clayton Kershaw has 197 and is only 34, but isn’t holding up as well physically. Zack Greinke is 38 and has 223, but getting 27 more is going to be tough. With a little luck, Verlander could certainly clear the 275 wins mark, even if 300 seems a little far-fetched.
At 78.1 rWAR, Verlander is 27th overall, right behind Curt Schilling’s 80.5. Pedro Martinez, at 86.1 rWAR and 17th overall, seems like a pretty good target at this point. When his time finally comes and Verlander decides to wrap it up, he’s going in the Hall of Fame in five years, guaranteed.
The horse factor
Number are great, but FanGraphs’ Hall of Fame guru, Jay Jaffe, will no doubt do a better job explaining Verlander’s historical context via cross-era comparisons between the numbers. However, the numbers don’t quite tell the full story. Only by watching the games, seeing the full arc of a players’ career, can you fully appreciate just how special the really rare athletes are. Tigers fans who’ve seen the whole career play out in front of us are in a unique position to attest to the absolute freakshow that is Justin Verlander’s right arm and the fastball that has streaked from that arm past hitters for 17 years now. There are at most a handful of pitchers who can even be compared to him.
It’s not unbelievable that peak Nolan Ryan threw as hard as Verlander and perhaps even kept that velo as deep into his career as Verlander has managed. It is very difficult to believe there’s ever been another arm beyond Ryan’s with the combination of high velocity and durability that could outstrip Verlander in this regard. If you could come up with a stat to reflect the raw power and durability of pitchers across the different eras, a “horse factor” statistic, to put it in Jim Leyland parlance, you’d have to think Verlander would be right at the top. What he’s done pushes the boundaries of everything baseball people have ever thought was physically possible.
Tigers fans have seen it all. For years they had the pleasure of watching their young ace sit comfortably 93-95 mph in the early innings, and then ramp up the velocity each time he went through a lineup until he was pumping it in there from the high 90’s to over 100 mph beyond 90 pitches, often throwing 120 or more pitches in a game. That era ended with the 2013 season, and he’s only rarely touched 100 mph since, and yet the durability and elite velocity has remained near the top of the league.
From 2007 until his elbow finally gave out in 2020, Verlander missed throwing 200+ innings only once, in 2015. For perhaps the hardest throwing starting pitcher of all-time to rack up those innings totals all while routinely throwing 120 pitches an outing for the first half of his career, and on top of it, adding in 207 2⁄3 innings of postseason work, is just off the charts. We may never see anything like him again.
Among active pitchers, only Jacob deGrom really compares in terms of velocity, and he can’t stay healthy doing it. He’d have to sustain 10 years of 200 innings throwing near max velocity, to get into Ryan-Verlander territory.
Does this matter? Not in the record books. Obviously pitching isn’t a contest of who can throw the hardest for the longest span of seasons. However, in the story of baseball, Verlander’s fourseam fastball should go down among a handful of the most over-powering and long-lived heaters in the game’s history. As a pure arm talent sustained by good mechanics, good genetics, a lot of hard work, and some luck, there just aren’t many who can compare.
The fact that he’s continued to learn and grow as a pitcher through numerous different stages of his career only speaks to his seemingly endless drive to improve. What he’s done with the Astros, finally maximizing the spin and movement on his pitches to a degree that was never possible prior to ball-tracking technology and a modern understanding of spin and spin efficiency, has been incredible to see. He may top out at 98 mph nowadays, which is still downright crazy at 39 and in his first year after UCL reconstruction, but his raw stuff has never been better.
One wonders what his career might look like if he’d had a modern analytics department all along. It’s interesting looking at early footage of him and recognizing how poorly his fastball movement was optimized at times. His command didn’t fully come together until the 2009 season anyway, but clearly his numbers could have been even better in those early years. The slider that he’s developed into one of the best in the game didn’t even really become a prominent part of his arsenal until he finally started experimenting more with it in 2016. Watching him take things to a new level with the Astros has been incredibly impressive, and from the look of things he’s got plenty more good years ahead.
Will Verlander pitch until he’s 46 like Ryan did? Perhaps not. Will we ever get him back in Detroit? Eh, it’s possible but looking less and less likely. But when all is said and done there are going to be good arguments to think of Verlander among the absolute top tier of pitchers all-time. It’s just a question of how much farther he can take it, and how badly he wants to. We can still enjoy this to a degree from afar, but when the time comes for his induction at Cooperstown, it’s harder to imagine that he’ll be wearing a Tigers hat, and that’s a wound that only turning this franchise around and finally winning another World Series is likely to help heal.