No. 6 Tigers: 25th in a series counting down to spring training. Next: Diamondbacks.
This not just in: Justin Verlander is a stud.
He makes an in-his-prime Richard Gere look like Don Knotts. If he was a guitarist, Eric Clapton would never go on stage with him. If he was an investor, Warren Buffett would call him for advice.
Thanks to the warm-hearted nature of the Baseball Writers Association of America, Verlander enters 2012 as the American League's reigning Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner. He didn't deserve both honors — teammate Miguel Cabrera was at least as responsible for the Tigers' success — but this isn't an argument about the relative value of pitchers and everyday players.
The point here is to point out the one thing that truly separates Detroit's ace from every other pitcher of his generation. He's not just a workhorse. He's a thoroughbred in an era of quarter horses.
With salaries continuing to soar and managers falling in love with their relievers, it has become rare to see someone leave his starting pitcher in for 120 pitches, as Jim Leyland regularly does Verlander.
Former Cubs managers Jim Riggleman, Don Baylor and Dusty Baker leaned heavily on Kerry Wood, and his arm reacted as if it had been abused. The same held true for Mark Prior, whose career was never the same after Baker let him throw 120-plus pitches in five of his last six starts in 2003, when he led the National League with 114 pitches per starts.
Few modern pitchers can tolerate a heavy workload for long. The Rockies' Jim Tracy leaned on Ubaldo Jimenez in 2010 (eight 120-plus starts), and his ERA jumped from 2.88 to 4.68 last season. It's going to be interesting to see how the Angels' Jered Weaver pitches this season. Mike Scioscia gave him seven 120-plus starts last season, after only one the year before.
Leyland doesn't spend much time worrying about Verlander. He has seen him bounce back time and time again after being leaned on to work into the eighth or ninth innings. It's his calling card, the way that strikeouts and no-hitters were for Nolan Ryan.
Verlander has thrown at least 120 pitches in 34 starts the last three seasons. That's almost as many as the next three guys combined (Tim Lincecum, 13, and Ryan Dempster and Jimenez, 12 apiece).
This isn't like lapping the field in a performance statistic, like home runs or RBIs. It can be manipulated by a manager, of course, so it better compares to Cal Ripken's consecutive game streak, in which at any given point he was thousands of games ahead of the next longest streak. That's the difference between Verlander and every other pitcher in baseball in terms of predictable toughness.
With every other pitcher in the majors, a manager tends to go easy in the outing immediately after an extended start. Leyland doesn't have to worry about that with Verlander. He has essentially worked a full season in such situations over the last three years, and in those 31 starts he's 20-9 with a 2.40 ERA.
Again, that is after throwing 120-plus pitches in the previous start. How studly is that?
Perhaps there eventually will be a price to be paid for all the quality strikes that Verlander throws. But he's as smart as he is strong. He threw sliders only eight percent of the time last season (compared to 34 percent by Edwin Jackson, 20 percent by CC Sabathia, 18 percent by Weaver and 16 percent by Lincecum) and reached back for his high-90s fastballs only when he needed to (David Price threw 383 more pitchers than Verlander that clocked 95-plus).
Verlander is baseball's ultimate trump card, which was why the Yankees would rather have played any other team in a best-of-five series last October.
There are a lot of other things to like about the Tigers than him — including the freshly minted $214 million contract for Prince Fielder — but Verlander gives Leyland a weapon that 29 other managers wish they had. He's the best pitcher in the majors, and despite the big reputations of guys like Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Lincecum and Sabathia, Roy Halladay is the only guy in the same neighborhood.
- The Tigers were fourth in the AL in scoring last season, and should be better in 2012 with a full season of Delmon Young and Fielder providing an upgrade over Victor Martinez, whose season-ending knee injury prompted the Fielder signing.
- Questionable fielding (especially Cabrera at third base) could leave the Tigers again in the middle of the AL pack in runs allowed. But the addition of Octavio Dotel to the bullpen and 30-plus starts from Doug Fister lessen the need for Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello to provide the improvement.
- Cabrera is not the most nimble guy but he went first-to-third on singles 26 times last season, the most in the majors. The average major-leaguer did that in only 29 percent of opportunities; he was at almost 37 percent.
- While Jacob Turner is the Tigers' best pitching prospect, lefties Andy Oliver and Drew Smyly are more likely to win the fifth starter's job. Smyly, 22, was 11-6 with a 2.07 ERA in his first pro season, then threw 17 shutout innings for Team USA in international competition.
- Owner Mike Ilitch really, really wants his teams to win.