Fallen King–Justin Verlander Tries To Reclaim Crown


As William Shakespeare understood, there are few things more tragic than the unraveling of a king.

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The storied playwright traveled extensively, at least in historical terms, to select his regal subjects and wrote as eloquently as any human ever has about their demise.

But Detroit Tiger fans needn’t go beyond Comerica Park to find their very own deposed ruler–of course I speak of that former King of the Hill, Justin Verlander.

After a storied college career at Old Dominion, the Virginia native was drafted by Detroit with the second pick of the 2004 MLB draft (*author’s note: the less than memorable Matt Bush, a high school shortstop who never made it past Double A, was picked first by San Diego; despite the fact Bush spent six nondescript years at eight forsaken minor league outposts, the term “Bush League” pre-dated his misery and is not attributable to him).

After protracted negotiations–which were finalized only after the intercession of Verlander’s father, a union negotiator in his workplace–Verlander finally became Tiger property in October, 2004.

From that point, he came on fast.

In 2005, his first year as a professional, Verlander pitched 118 innings in the minors while also making a cameo in Detroit, where he appeared in two games.

In 2006 he made the starting rotation out of spring training, finished 17-9 with an ERA of 3.63, and was voted the American League Rookie of the Year.

For the next four years the 6’5″ right hander was a fixture in the Tiger rotation, winning 66 games and averaging 217 innings a year.

It was not until 2011, though, that Verlander earned the garland reserved for the best pitcher in baseball. In that year, as well as 2012, he soared to Olympian heights known only to the all-time great pitchers of the game.

Leaning on a sizzling fastball, devastating secondary pitches, and an indomitable will, over those two years he won 41 games and lost 13, with an ERA of 2.52 . He also threw his second no-hitter during that interim, and won both the Cy Young and AL MVP awards in 2011.

But as a long lost philosopher by the name of George L. Anderson (perhaps you knew him as “Sparky”) once said, “every 24 hours the world turns over on someone who’s sitting on top of it”.

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And although Verlander maintained his aura of invincibility for a considerably longer 24 months as opposed to 24 hours, his world did indeed roll over after signing a $180 million contract following the 2012 season.

For whatever reason, and speculation has been rife, Verlander has not since approached the mastery of those halcyon years.

Be it age (he turns 32 this month), core surgery, unusual wear and tear on the arm, or a confluence of all three, the past two years have been a struggle.  This is amply illustrated by last year’s record of 15-12, which accompanied a 4.54 ERA and a WHIP of 1.40.

His elite velocity, once his calling card, is down a meaningful three mph from 2011-12. Likewise, the seventh inning 100 mph put-away heater has been missing in action for some time.

Also troubling is Verlander’s relative lack of command from his glory years, as he walked only two per nine innings in 2011, versus almost three last year. Beyond the increased free passes, even many of the strikes he has thrown recently have been sloppily located.

Given this, it’s not surprising Verlander’s strikeout ratio has fallen from nine per nine innings in 2011 to less than seven in 2014.

So what lies ahead for Verlander in 2015?

For one thing, though the role of staff ace has been ceded by most to David Price, the departure of Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello makes it imperative Verlander return to form.

Last year there were extended periods when Verlander was essentially a back-of-the-rotation starter, yet somehow the Tigers survived.

The team no longer has that luxury.

If Verlander returns to something approximating his former self and joins Price and an injury-free Anibal Sanchez at the top of the rotation, the Tigers will be hard to beat in the suddenly well-regarded American League Central division.

However, if he remains on the trajectory of the past two years, or even worse, spirals downward, the team will find itself with an invitation to the Mediocre Bowl in early October instead of the post-season playoffs.

The Bottom Line

The Detroit Tiger starting rotation, shed of the 210 million dollar man Max Scherzer and innings-eater Rick Porcello, suddenly looks vulnerable.

Sure, the team added Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon to the mix in the off-season, but any trumpeting of their arrival could well be–as the Bard once wrote–much ado about nothing.

In any case, as a duo they simply aren’t capable of replacing Scherzer and Porcello.

Which means the team’s success still largely comes down to whether Verlander, perhaps the franchise’s best all-time pitcher, gets his on-the-field swagger back.

As for his off-the-field swagger, perhaps that should be left alone.

After all, as a multi-millionaire professional baseball player who’s currently dating Kate Upton, one can assume Verlander’s off-the-field swagger is working just fine, thank you.

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