Justin Verlander is really good. That statement, while a popular rallying cry uttered by social media-savvy fans of the Detroit Tigers, is painfully obvious and equally vague. It’s a simple, trite phrase, which makes it ironic if you’re aware—and if you’re reading this, it’s extremely probable that you are aware—of exactly how good Verlander really is.
We’re, of course, cognizant of the pitching skill possessed by the current holder of the American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards, but Verlander has one trait, beyond his electric fastball and other tangible assets, that has and will do much to keep him consistently ahead of the pack; perfectionism.
He’s confident, not arrogant—the latter adjective implies an exaggerated opinion of oneself; he’s good—no, superb—and he knows it. But what’s fantastic about Verlander is the fact that superb is not enough; a facet of his game is constantly under construction, unable to meet the unfathomably high standards he sets for himself. Look at the last two weeks:
Verlander made his first Grapefruit League appearance on March 5th. He took the mound against the Toronto Blue Jays, his most recent no-hitter victims, and held them scoreless for two frames. He struck out a man and allowed a single base runner, Colby Rasmus, who reached on a bloop single but was promptly removed from the base paths by a ground ball double play. For Verlander, the day wasn’t without a few nearly indiscernible kinks, but in the box score, his outing appeared simply as a natural resumption of his incredible execution from last year. An excerpt from the pitcher’s modest evaluation: ”I’m hoping I can get that feel—I had it for a little bit today, lost it a little bit…”
Five days later, he toed the rubber again opposite the Washington Nationals (a split squad, granted). This time, Verlander doubled his innings, putting four zeros on the scoreboard accompanied by three hits, a colossal total only by his measure, and four strikeouts. The man of Fastball Flakes fame after that effort: “I was way out of rhythm, especially early. Nothing was quite right. The good thing is I was able to get it going. My bullpen and first inning were horrible.” Imagine where we would be as a society if normal humans had such an elevated definition of the word “horrible.”
Thursday afternoon, Verlander’s game started poorly as he surrendered a lead-off home run to Endy Chavez. This apparently upset Verlander, and as he would demonstrate throughout the day, teams would be wise not to agitate him with a home run, at least not until they get a guy or two on base. He yielded a walk, a single, and a double from there, but he also struck out eight on a day when his pitch count led to his departure after three and two-thirds innings. 14 batters faced and eight sent down on strikes means impressive stuff. “I still didn’t get in the groove I wanted,” said the Tigers ace, who also noted his need to work on efficiency, along with “mechanics, repeating my delivery, and locating my fastball.” That’s a long to-do list for a guy coming off a short outing with eight strikeouts.
Verlander, who in 2012 has allowed one run while walking one batter and striking out 13 over almost ten innings (arguably the best numbers of any pitcher in baseball so far this spring), summarized his three spring starts, telling reporters they “have worked out all right.” They certainly have.