Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 27, 2015

The Justin Of Old, Or Just An Old Justin?

Depending on one’s rooting interest, the explosion of chalk dust caused by the ball hit by the Angels’ Chris Ianetta landing on the left field foul line at Comerica Park late Wednesday night brought instant anguish or sudden relief. Most of those in the crowd of 31,938 at the Tigers home field were understandably in the former category, as evidenced by the loud groan that echoed through the stadium. For eight innings and 104 pitches Detroit’s Justin Verlander had held the visitors hitless. But pitch number 105 was a 2-2 fastball that wandered over the middle of the plate and the L.A. catcher, the leadoff batter in the top of the 9th, ripped a line drive over third. Midway between the infield dirt and the 345 foot sign at the wall the ball landed on the line, throwing up that little cloud of white that signaled the end of Verlander’s bid for a third career no-hitter.

Had the ball curved the slightest bit as it flew, and landed just a couple of inches to the left in foul ground, the no-hit bid would have been preserved. Whether it would have been completed is impossible to say. Perhaps Ianetta, whose average is below .200, would have swung and missed at Verlander’s next offering and been the first out of a 1-2-3 final frame. Or perhaps he would have put the next pitch in the seats. What fans do know is that after Ianetta’s leadoff double, Angels’ third baseman Kaleb Cowart struck out on three pitches, pinch hitter David DeJesus popped to short, and right fielder Kole Calhoun lifted a fly ball to center fielder Anthony Gose to end the game. It was a 5-0 victory for Detroit, and a one-hitter for Verlander. Aside from the spoiling double, he allowed just two base runners on a pair of free passes while striking out nine, and both of the earlier base runners were erased on double plays.

Verlander threw his first no-hitter from the same mound in 2007, and his second on the road in Toronto four years later. Had he achieved his third Wednesday night, he would have joined a distinguished and very short list of pitchers with at least three career no-no’s. When he shut down the Blue Jays in 2011 Verlander was in the midst of a season in which he won the pitching Triple Crown, leading the American League with 24 wins, 250 strikeouts, and an ERA of 2.40. It was a dominant season good enough to garner Verlander both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards. A third no-hitter and perhaps even more seemed but a matter of time.

Sure enough the very next season he came within two outs of no-hitting the Pirates in May, and went on to post a 17-8 record that helped carry the Tigers, who had lost the ALCS to the Rangers in 2011, all the way to their second World Series appearance in six years. Verlander just missed out on a second Cy Young in 2012, edged out in a close vote by the Rays’ David Price.

With a Rookie of the Year Award from his first campaign in 2006, MVP honors, one Cy Young Award and very nearly a second, and with the Tigers dominating the AL Central Division, it seemed reasonable when Detroit rewarded Verlander with a $180 million contract extension prior to the 2013 season. The deal kept the Tigers and their ace together through 2019, with an added $22 million option for 2020 that vests if Verlander finishes in the top five in the 2019 Cy Young voting. When it was signed the contract made Verlander, then 30 years old, the highest paid pitcher in the history of the Great Game.

While it may sometimes feel that way, it is not true that every athlete who inks a big contract promptly goes bust; and in fairness to Verlander, in the first two years of his new deal he didn’t pitch terribly. But he did go from extraordinary to pedestrian. In 2013 he finished 13-12, and his ERA climbed by more than three-quarters of a run from the previous season. He then underwent core muscle surgery during the offseason, and may have come back too soon in 2014. He struggled throughout the first half, when his ERA climbed towards 5.00. He fared better after the All-Star break, but also missed a start for the first time in his career. At season’s end he was 15-12, but with an ERA of 4.54. His adjusted ERA+, which had led the AL in 2011 and 2012, was 86. A number below 100 means the pitcher is worse than average. Meanwhile the Tigers playoff fortunes steadily regressed, from the 2012 World Series appearance to an ALCS loss in 2013 and an ALDS defeat last year.

This season, the first of five in which Verlander is scheduled to make $28 million under the terms of his back loaded contract, he began the season on the DL. Since his rookie year the Tigers’ right-hander has thrown more pitches than any other hurler in the league. After eight consecutive seasons of 200-plus innings pitched the nightmare for Detroit fans, whose team is mired in a lost season with a record below .500, was that their one-time ace was breaking down with many years of that rich contract still to go.

When he returned to the mound in mid-June, there was little encouraging in the early results. After six starts his record was 0-3 and his ERA an ugly 6.62. In the last of the six he didn’t make it out of the 4th inning against Baltimore while yielding seven earned runs.

But since that debacle there have been signs of hope. He’s had just one bad outing, against Kansas City early this month. In his last seven starts he’s allowed only eight earned runs, five of which were in the Royals contest. His last four games, while admittedly a small sample size upon which to base conclusions, have been even better: 0.31 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, 9.62 strikeouts per nine innings.  Topped off by a vintage performance Wednesday when his fastball got faster as the game progressed, a familiar Verlander trait during his 2011 and 2012 glory years.

Fans in Detroit and around the Great Game won’t know for a while whether that fine outing, forever defined by the puff of white down the line in left field in the top of the 9th, was just a brief intermission in another cautionary tale about the risks of long-term contracts, or the first of many dominant performances in a career that’s getting back on track. For now the only certainty is that the Tigers and their fans have four more years and 112 million reasons to hope it’s the latter.

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Responses

  1. If Verlander settles into a long and productive career as a merely “good” pitcher, the Tigers will probably be happy with their investment, because at least he will not have been Mike Hampton.
    Very nice job,
    -Bill

    • Thanks Bill. If I recall correctly Hampton wound up making something north of $2 million per win over the eight years of that deal. Even if Verlander doesn’t return to his 2011-12 form the Tigers ought to get a better return than that! Not so sure that will be the case for my Yankees and the $50 million owed to CC Sabathia over the next two seasons. By the way, I see the Mets have set a team record for home runs in August, and there’s still a couple days to go in the month. Not sure I saw that coming back in June when they were winning or losing by scores of 2-1 and 1-0.

      Thanks again,

      Mike

      • The odd thing about all these homers is the Mets will probably finish the year without a single player topping 30 homers. Just a bunch of guys with moderate power all getting reasonably hot at the same time. Landing Yoenis Cespedes doesn’t hurt, of course.
        -Bill


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