Justin Verlander is officially back. The future Hall of Famer missed two seasons to injury, but he is picking up right where he left off in his Cy Young 2019 season. At 6 foot, 5 inches and 239 pounds, the intimidating, stubble-faced Verlander looks every bit the ace he always was, and he is leading the Houston Astros as they challenge the American League West for yet another postseason berth.
Straight to the Top
Verlander’s ascent to the upper echelon of Major League Baseball was nothing short of meteoric. He attended Old Dominion University, where he racked up school and conference records in strikeouts and finished with a 2.57 ERA. The Detroit Tigers made Verlander the second overall pick in the 2004 draft and sent him to the single-A Lakeland Flying Tigers of the Florida State League to start 2005.
Verlander made 13 starts for Lakeland, winning nine games and posting a 1.67 ERA. In July, the Tigers called him up to Detroit to start two games. Verlander finished the season with the double-A Erie SeaWolves of the Eastern League, pitching in seven games and posting a microscopic 0.28 ERA.
That was it for Verlander’s minor league career. In one season, he went 11-2 with a 1.29 ERA, racking up 1.15 per inning. He played in the MLB Futures Game and was named a Florida State League Mid-Season All-Star. At the end of the season, Baseball America named Verlander an all-star in both the Florida State League and the Eastern League, and MiLB.com named him the Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Year. Across all leagues, Verlander was ready to shine.
Hall of Hardware
Verlander has assembled more than enough trophies for one Hall of Fame career. After being assigned number 59 during his brief 2005 call-up, Verlander finally donned his iconic number 35 jersey to start the 2006 season. He won the American League Rookie of the Year Award, slotting in as an ace next to veteran Kenny Rogers and leading the Tigers to 95 wins and a World Series appearance against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Verlander has won one MVP Award and received MVP votes in six other seasons. He’s thrown three no-hitters. That leaves him third all-time, behind some of the most legendary names in all sports. Nolan Ryan threw seven no-hitters and Sandy Koufax twirled four. With three, Verlander is tied with Bob Feller, Larry Corcoran, and some guy named Cy Young.
Speaking of Young, Verlander has won two of his eponymous awards and finished in the top five in Cy Young voting eight times.
Verlander has made eight All-Star Games. In 2011, he won the pitching Triple Crown, leading the American League with 24 wins, 250 strikeouts, and a 2.40 ERA. He’s led the league in strikeout five times, in walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) four times, and in strikeout-to-walk ratio twice. Most importantly, he’s not done yet.
Over the course of his career, Verlander has provided the rare combination of elite pitching with a maximal workload. Pitching, especially when you throw as hard as Verlander does, is hard on the human body. Few things are more valuable to a big league club than a reliable arm, and Verlander is a certified workhorse.
Verlander led the league in innings pitched four times and games started five times. In 2012, he led all of baseball with six complete games, a feat that may well never happen again. He is Major League Baseball’s active leader in career wins and strikeouts.
Part of the Team
Despite the surfeit of black ink, Verlander’s career goes far beyond the numbers. Fans remember his appearance as the 2012 All-Star starter very well. Verlander usually saves maximum effort pitches for the later innings, but he aired it out in the first, throwing five pitches over 100 and another at 101 mph.
Unfortunately, the added velocity didn’t translate into results. Verlander allowed five runs in that first inning, but the reason for it was entertainment enough. Cameras caught fellow Tiger and starting first baseman Prince Fielder pointing out the radar gun and encouraging Verlander to give the fans a show. “I kind of halfway blame it on Prince Fielder,” Verlander later joked. “He was at first base, and he kept whispering at me, ‘Ver, Ver, Ver, throw 100.’ OK, Prince, here we go.”
Verlander has been part of some truly remarkable starting rotations. During his time with Detroit, he shared top billing with Max Scherzer, another future Hall of Fame right-hander. Verlander won the Cy Young in 2011 and Scherzer followed him up in 2013. In the six-season stretch between 2009 and 2014, the American League leader in wins was either Verlander or Scherzer four times. The pair also pitched deep into the postseason multiple times, including a World Series appearance in 2012.
In 2017, Verlander had to make the biggest decision of his career. The rebuilding Tigers were looking to trade him, but after spending his entire 13-year career with the Tigers, the 34-year-old Verlander had a full no-trade clause. With just an hour left before the midnight trade deadline, the Tigers informed Verlander that they had struck a deal with the Houston Astros. Verlander used what little time he had to speak to Houston’s management and their ace Dallas Keuchel.
Verlander agreed to the deal with two minutes to spare before the deadline. Houston fans, just beginning the recovery process after Hurricane Harvey, welcomed him like a conquering hero. Verlander closed out the season by winning all five games he started for the Astros while posting a 1.06 ERA.
The Astros won the American League West, winning 101 games, and rolled over the Boston Red Sox 3-1 in the Divisional Series. Verlander was named the MVP of the Championship Series, winning both games he started and allowing just one in 16 innings run as the Astros won in seven. The Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the World Series, yet again in seven games. Verlander won the Babe Ruth Award as the best player throughout the postseason.
In 2018, Verlander was teamed up with yet another right-handed ace. Before the season, the Astros traded for the hard-throwing Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates. The two made All-Star Game appearances and received Cy Young Award votes in both 2018 and 2019. In 2019, Verlander won the Cy Young, and the pair won 41 games together on their way to a thrilling World Series loss to the Washington Nationals.
Staying on Top
Conventional wisdom says that starters need four pitches to succeed, but Verlander has been unafraid to go with what works. In his 2011 Cy Young season, he threw fastballs nearly 60% of the time and sliders 8% of the time, splitting the remainder between change ups and curveballs. By the time of his 2019 Cy Young season, Verlander had ditched the change up completely and ramped up his slider usage to 27%.
Over the past two years, Verlander dealt with a series of cascading injuries. He underwent groin surgery in March 2020. As is so often the case, altering his mechanics to work around that injury caused yet another, this one to his latissimus dorsi.
Verlander recovered in time for the start of the season but made only one start before heading to the injured list with a forearm strain, dreaded around the league as the likely precursor to Tommy John surgery. That was, unfortunately, the case for Verlander, who underwent the procedure in October, and missed all of the 2021 season.
Verlander broke the news of the impending surgery himself, publishing a letter full of his trademark energy and optimism: “Obviously I’m extremely disappointed, but I will not let this slow down my aspirations for my career. I will approach this rehab the only way I know, attack and don’t look back. I’m confident that with a proper rehabilitation program and my unwavering commitment that this surgery will ultimately lengthen my career as opposed to shorten it.”
Rehab from Tommy John surgery is slow and monotonous, but it’s clear that the layoff hasn’t left Verlander any worse for wear. As the 2022 season nears its halfway point, he’s pitching at an All-Star level and even throwing slightly harder than he did in 2019.
Although Verlander is striking out fewer batters, he’s also walking fewer, and he has thrived in front of an excellent Houston defense led by Jose Siri in centerfield and rookie sensation Jeremy Pena at shortstop. Verlander is 9-3 with a 2.22 ERA, sitting at second on the American League leaderboard, both in WHIP and batting average.
More reassuring is that Verlander has been healthy and durable. He’s fourth in the American League in innings pitched, averaging more than six per start. While he’ll one day end up in Cooperstown, Verlander is making sure that day doesn’t come around too soon.