Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium, the Kansas City Royals playing host, Justin Verlander attended his fifth All-Star game, pitching for a third time and starting for a first. While receiving the honor of inaugurating the contest, bestowed by American League manager Ron Washington, probably had a lot to do with Verlander’s accomplishments of yesteryear, his performance in 2012 hasn’t been far removed from his Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, and Triple Crown pace.
Yet, when he took the mound Tuesday, adrenaline surging and images of rumored flame Kate Upton hopefully tucked away in the depths of his mind, he looked not himself. That is, he looked like the version of himself that lost 17 games in 2008, before he matured and learned to rein himself in early and slowly build the fastball velocity to complement his off-speed repertoire. The inefficient Verlander of old was back, and he needed 35 pitches to record three outs while scattering five earned runs.
The inning he struggled through was historically bad. According to Game Score, a handy Bill James metric used to summarize individual pitching performances, Verlander’s start was the second-worst in All-Star Game history, which runs all the way back to 1933. On a scale where scores below 50 generally represent poor starts, only Tom Glavine’s 19, posted in 1992, was worse than the 25 Verlander just pitched to.
The shocker wasn’t Verlander trying to light up the radar gun and give fans a show. Most surprising to me, on a night when he was tagged for four hits and two walks in a single frame, was his light demeanor afterward. “I was able to laugh about it right away,” he said. “Obviously you don’t want to go out like that, but hey, I had fun.” Verlander acknowledged that struggles often follow when he tries to blow batters away too early, saying, “That’s why I don’t try to throw 100 in the first inning—doesn’t usually work out too well for me. It’s really hard for me to do, to be able to command that when I haven’t established my delivery early in the game.”
He proceeded with the strategy anyway, and it put the AL All-Stars at a huge disadvantage that proved insurmountable. This would all be fine by me, and presumably by most—the best pitcher in baseball should be given some freedom to pitch as he pleases in a silly mid-season exhibition—but, since 2003, this game hasn’t been an exhibition at all. Rather, the Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig, has assigned it a certain importance, one the players themselves often seem to ignore; the All-Star Game’s winning league’s World Series representative should get home-field advantage in the Fall Classic, maintains Selig.
The game’s implications are insignificant to some, including the host Royals, who stand little chance at making the playoffs. But for Verlander, home-field advantage is nothing to sneeze at—the team with that on their side has won 21 of the last 26 the World Series and each of the last nine Series game sevens, and his team has a legitimate shot at being there. Nine victories in a row for the home team is not likely an anomaly, as, assuming 50-50 odds for each game, there’s a minuscule 1/512 chance such a streak would occur.
As a fan of the Detroit Tigers and of Justin Verlander, I’m disappointed in his first-inning showing Tuesday night. It doesn’t mean I think Verlander is bad or overrated, and I don’t mean to imply that he doesn’t take baseball seriously, but he’s set the bar pretty high and I feel comfortable holding him to a certain standard. The bigger problem, though, lies not with Verlander, but the current All-Star system: can we please get this thing fixed soon? Once it becomes utterly meaningless, maybe we can proceed to make it fun.