Justin Verlander On the Road to Cooperstown


Last summer, I almost witnessed history. On an oppressively hot Sunday afternoon, I watched along with my dad and about 37,000 others, most of us pouring ice down our necks and guzzling frozen beverages, as Justin Verlander dueled brilliantly opposite Jered Weaver and the Los Angeles Angels. Our hometown hero took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, and while we all know that the end of this story is somewhat disappointing, the day was, for me, a reminder of just how special this Verlander character really is.

He’s an ace and one of the best pitchers in baseball today. Along with Miguel Cabrera, he’s the face of the modern Detroit Tigers and will be for a while. But the incredible year he had in 2011, complete with performances like the classic battle against the Angels, got me wondering; are we watching a future Hall of Famer in Verlander?

Recently, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote his take on which active players should or will one day be recognized for their outstanding careers by the Baseball Writers Association of America and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Along with 14 others, Verlander was named under the subheading, ‘Off to a good start – keep it up and we’ll talk.’

Well, I want to talk about it now. How much do his accomplishments to date help his case? What kind of pace is he on? How much longer does he need to keep it up? What are the nice, round numbers he’ll need to hit to gain the support of traditionalist voters?

Besides the one I mentioned, there are a couple of games I think of first when pondering Verlander’s credentials; June 12th, 2007 against the Milwaukee Brewers at Comerica Park and May 7th, 2011 against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre. Verlander is one of thirty major league pitchers all-time to toss multiple no-hitters. Out of the 22 eligible for the Hall of Fame who accomplished that feat (not including three who pitched in the American Association, or the Beer and Whiskey League), nine–Pud Galvin, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, Addie Joss, Bob Feller, Jim Bunning, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, and Nolan Ryan–are in.

That’s certainly impressive, but Verlander aspires to even more. More no-hitters, that is. He dreams of one day matching the record of seven no-hit games pitched by Nolan Ryan, and as someone who watched Verlander take a a deep run at a third over the course of this past season, I wouldn’t bet against him. Only five men–Ryan, Cy Young, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, and Larry Corcoran–have thrown more than two no-hitters in their career. Of those five, only Corcoran, a member of the Chicago White Stockings of the 1880s, has not been immortalized in Cooperstown. The fairness of his exclusion is debatable, but the brevity of his once-promising career, which ended prematurely and after just five full seasons, did him in.

Similarly, if Verlander were to retire today, the duration of his career would probably be the only thing preventing his enshrinement in the Hall.

The other elite group of which Verlander is a member is one he joined, somewhat controversially, not long ago; that of pitchers who have won the Most Valuable Player Award. Last year, he became the first pitcher to be added to the list since Dennis Eckersley was named MVP in 1992 and the first starter since Roger Clemens in 1986. Since the institution of the Cy Young Award in 1956, the MVP has been won by a pitcher just ten times. In total, it’s been given to hurlers 24 times, including to three men who won the award twice in Carl Hubbell, Walter Johnson, and the Tigers’ own Hal Newhouser. Of the 19 historic pitcher MVPs eligible for the Hall of Fame, only nine–Guillermo Hernandez, Denny McLain, Vida Blue, Bobby Shantz, Spud Chandler, Jim Konstanty, Mort Cooper, Bucky Walters, and Don Newcombe–have yet to be inducted. Newcombe is also the only pitcher besides Verlander to win the Rookie of the Year Award, a Cy Young, and an MVP.

Verlander is already in world-class company thanks to the aforementioned achievements. Just shy of 29 years old and currently preparing for his seventh big league season, longevity and consistency will be key for him in his quest to carve out a permanent and prominent place in baseball history.

His durability to this point is a hugely important, positive sign for him going forward. Over the last six seasons, only Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, and Dan Haren have pitched more than his 1,304 innings. Those three, Verlander, Matt Cain, and Mark Buehrle are the only six pitchers to go at least 200 innings in each of the past five seasons. In order to throw that much, you have to go almost completely injury-free. Verlander has, remarkably, done that. He’s been banged up, sure, but has so far avoided any setbacks significant enough to land him on the disabled list. He’s tireless and has the work ethic of Michael Jordan, something he improved upon last year with stunning results.

If his arm doesn’t fall off first, he’ll have a good shot at reaching the big numbers that seem to appeal so much to BBWAA voters.

Let’s say he pitches through his age 40 season, a mark that’s probably very attainable. He actually seems the type to last even longer, but we’ll say he retires at 40 for the sake of this discussion. That means he has 12 seasons left. To reach 300 wins, he would need to average 16 per year for the rest of his career. It’s easy to envision him amassing at least 20 victories for each of the next five years playing in a pitcher’s park, in one of baseball’s weakest divisions, backed up by what will probably be a good offense for a long time. That would put him at 207 heading into his age 34 season. He would then need to average around 13 for the following seven years. It doesn’t sound like too daunting a task when you think about it in those terms. Evan Brunell of CBSSports.com wrote a good piece on Verlander’s chances at 300 wins last month and concluded essentially the same thing.

For comparison, Roy Halladay, the winningest active pitcher outside of the almost elderly Tim Wakefield, will throw in 2012 at age 35 and has just 188 wins. CC Sabathia, who has 176 wins and turned 31 in July,  is probably the only active pitcher besides Verlander with a legitimate shot at 300 wins, but I have to think his weight will work against him to some extent as he ages. A lot of things have to go right for either Verlander or Sabathia to achieve this incredible feat, but a pitcher who does inevitably stamps his ticket to Cooperstown; all of the 20 Hall of Fame eligible pitchers in the 300 win club have been voted in.

The other magic number for pitchers is 3,000 strikeouts. The number of pitchers to punch out that many batters is a smaller group than the 300 win club, with just 16 members, but this number actually seems even more reachable for Verlander. He has already racked up 1,215 and has led the league in the statistic in two of the last three seasons. He currently ranks 34th in career strikeout totals among active pitchers, but he’s got at least two years at hand on everyone in front of him with the exception of Felix Hernandez. One blogger recently assigned Verlander an 88% chance to reach the mark. In order to do it by the end of his age 40 season in 2023, he’ll need to average about 140 strikeouts every year for the next dozen. He’s averaged 217 per season for the last five and 246 for the last three. Basically, he has a fantastic shot.

For those who prefer advanced metrics to the counting stats of yesteryear, Verlander still stacks up extremely well. Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor gives him a score of 78 for his career to date. Earning a score of 100 over a career is supposed to give a player ‘a good possibility’ of making the Hall while hitting 130 is said to make one ‘a virtual cinch’ (see a detailed explanation of the Hall of Fame Monitor here). He’s got a ways to go to hit either of those marks, but he’s got a long time to do it. I would venture to guess that he’ll hit at least 150 by the end of his career, and I believe that’s conservative. That would put him just ahead of Don Sutton, who was made a Hall of Famer in 1998, his fifth year of eligibility.

If Verlander declines, fails to reach 300 wins, falls short of 3,000 strikeouts, and fizzles before throwing even one more no-hitter, one thing could still save him; the playoffs. It’s cliché, sure, but there’s no denying that legends are made in October, and it only takes a spectacular moment or two. Look at Jack Morris. He was a good pitcher, and racked up the most wins of anyone in the eighties, but many arguing against his Hall of Fame candidacy point to his 3.90 career ERA among multiple incriminating statistics. In the end, it won’t matter. Why? October 27th, 1991. Morris threw one of the most legendary games in World Series history when he shut out the Atlanta Braves over ten innings in a winner-take-all game seven for the Minnesota Twins. In doing so, he became the only pitcher in the history of the game to hurl an extra-inning shutout in the final game of the World Series. That day turned a fringe candidate for the Hall into a player who has received more than 50% of the vote for the last two years.

As an aside, here’s hoping Verlander, unlike Morris, sticks around to finish an illustrious career in the Motor City. (He has three seasons left on his current contract.)

Whether or not he keeps doing what he’s doing and is eventually enshrined in the Hall, it’s pretty clear to fans of the Tigers and baseball in general that we are all witnessing something pretty awesome in Verlander. With any luck, he should join the current roster of 62 pitchers in the Hall and be remembered, with reverence, forever.