Retroactive Review: Ace

They don’t make many pitchers like Justin Verlander. (via Keith Allison)

On August 31st, the Detroit Tigers officially signaled the end to an era when they traded long-time Tigers pitcher and superstar, Justin Verlander. Verlander was one of few players drafted and developed by the Tigers in the past 10-plus years who also found success with the team. To many, Verlander was the face of the franchise and it was inconceivable to imagine the team without their “ace.”

As much as Verlander’s departure signaled the end of a successful era of Tigers baseball, his much-heralded arrival as a top draft pick and prospect brought the promise of better things on the horizon for a once-proud franchise. At the time of Verlander’s major league debut in 2005, the Tigers had not enjoyed a winning season in over a decade. Verlander would make two spot-starts for the Tigers in 2005 and though he didn’t fare well in either appearance, he still showed flashes of the pitcher he would one day grow into.

Verlander departed the Tigers an icon, in an effort to chase that elusive World Series title that slipped from his grip in 2006, 2012 and a half-dozen other years. Detroit would win 86 or more games in eight of his 11 full seasons with the ballclub, but they only made the playoffs in five of those seasons. It seems incredibly fitting that the trade—which yielded three of Houston’s top prospects—effectively slammed the door on a successful decade of Tigers baseball that began with Verlander’s ascension.

This edition of Retroactive Review will be a little different. Usually, I look back on an old book or movie. This time, I’m going to take a look at some underrated or lesser known moments (both good and bad) throughout Verlander’s Tigers career.

Many/most fans know all about his two no-hitters, his first career base hit, his famous fiancée, his many charitable endeavors. I don’t want to focus on those. I’d like instead to look back at a decade of Verlander and pick out some of my favorite (and not-so-favorite) memories.

5. April 16, 2012: Gas left in the tank

This start wasn’t an especially memorable Verlander outing, just because he had so many like it during his stretch of dominance in 2011-2012, and it happened fairly early in the season. It’s just one of many examples of what kind of pitcher Verlander was at his absolute peak. In those days, he’d often start out throwing mid-90s and steadily add velocity as the game went on.

In this particular game, Verlander found himself in a ninth inning jam and dug deep, throwing 102 mph gas past Alex Gordon to notch a complete-game victory. Kansas City’s gun is notorious for being hot, but even with that being said, 100 mph in the ninth on pitch 132 is pretty impressive.

4. May 13, 2011: Flirting with history

Just six days after notching a no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Old Dominion product once again flirted with history, looking to become the first pitcher to throw no-hitters in consecutive starts since Johnny Vander Meer did it back in 1938. Verlander again had fans wondering if they might bear witness to history as he carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Kansas City Royals.

The sixth is a bit early to start a no-hitter watch, but the fact of the matter is Verlander was so dominant in those days, you couldn’t help but wonder if he might do it again. He came out with no-hit stuff almost every start. Verlander ended up losing his no-hit bid on a run scoring triple off the bat of Melky Cabrera. That run was the only one he’d give up, though, as he ended up going eight innings before handing the ball to closer José Valverde.

3. May 18, 2012: Flirting with history, Part Deux

On this particular day, Verlander—already with two no-hitters under his belt—flirted with history as he carried a no-no into the ninth against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Back in those days, every start was #MustSeeJV (so coined by Detroit Tigers beat writer Matthew B. Mowery) because, in any given start, Verlander could twirl a no-hitter. This game was no different. Verlander, who’d picked up right where he’d left off following his MVP 2011 season – when he became the first pitcher to win MVP since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 — manhandled the Pirates offense with relative ease.

With just two outs standing between Verlander and a third career no-hitter, which would have put him in the company of Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Larry Corcoran, Bob Feller and Cy Young and as the only pitchers to have thrown more than two, Josh Harrison came to the plate. Harrison eventually singled up the middle in a two-strike count to end Verlander’s bid for a third no-hitter. Oddly enough, Harrison also broke up a no-hitter this year. Verlander would at least hang on to notch the win for his team after Harrison broke up his, but Rich Hill wasn’t as lucky.

2. Oct. 24, 2012: Getting mauled by a Panda

Verlander’s second trip to the World Series was a memorable one, but for all the wrong reasons. Despite his regular-season prowess, Verlander had gained somewhat of a reputation as a postseason disappointment, largely because of his 2006 and 2011 postseason outings. Verlander appeared in the World Series his rookie year and seemingly struggled under the intense pressure and scrutiny. In 2011, Verlander was only “mediocre,” but a deeper dive into into the box scores reveals he was a bit unlucky, with a rain-shortened outing in the first game of the American League Division Series, and he had a couple four-run starts against powerful offenses.

Overall, he headed into the 2012 postseason with a 3-3 career playoff record, and a 5.57 postseason ERA. So it’s not hard to see why fans were skittish. Still, while he had walked 10.5 percent of the batters he had faced in the 2006 and 2011 postseasons (higher than his 7.3% BB% from 2005-2012) he had struck out 25.1 percent of them, which was higher than his career 22.7% K% that he had compiled through the end of the 2012 regular season. He also had an absurdly high 1.5 HR/9 that was bound to regress.

In 2012, Verlander was expected to finally put it all together and be the Ace. He’d had yet another Cy Young-worthy season, and had dominated throughout the playoffs, up to that point. Unfortunately for Verlander, he wasn’t the reason Game 1 of the World Series was memorable, as Pablo Sandoval clubbed two home runs off of him—and another off reliever Al Alburquerque—in a performance for the ages.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

1. Sept. 5, 2017: A Tiger no more

On August 31st, with just a minute to go before the waiver trade deadline, the Tigers pulled the trigger on a deal that sent Verlander to the playoff-bound Houston Astros. Verlander, who had a full no-trade clause, was given 45 minutes to contemplate the deal.

Though there had been whispers and rumblings well before the Tigers shipped off the face of the franchise, the move officially signaled the end of this current era of Tigers’ baseball. Verlander, who had spent all of his 13 years of professional baseball with the organization, was leaving to continue his pursuit of an elusive World Series ring.

The trade yielded young talent at positions of need, particularly in the outfield, but it was still a bitter pill to swallow for a fan base that has grown accustomed to winning.

Verlander’s first start in Houston was just as dominant as he’d been in the end of his Tigers tenure. Verlander went 4-1 over 6 starts in August, posting a 10.71 K/9 and a miniscule 1.50 BB/9, to go along with a stingy 2.36 ERA. In 10 of his last 11 starts for Detroit, dating back to July 8, he allowed three or fewer runs. He allowed two or fewer in nine of them, and struck out at least eight in seven of them. In short, he was his dominant, ace self.

He made his Astros debut on Sept. 5 in Seattle. The tall right-hander went six innings and collected a victory, allowing a single run on six hits. He struck out seven and walked just one. Verlander came out of the game with the score tied 1-1 and became the beneficiary of a Cameron Maybin two-run go-ahead homer. Ironically, Maybin—already a teammate of Verlander’s twice before—found his way to Houston after his former Tigers teammate and longtime friend, Justin Upton, was traded by Detroit to Los Angeles on the very same day Verlander was dealt.

In his third start with his new team, Verlander helped Houston clinch a division title for the first time in sixteen years.

There are honestly too many other moments to recount, but I can’t let you leave without handing out an honorable mention to the Curtis Granderson Catch.

It’s not exclusively a Verlander moment, but he did play a pretty big role in it! And a shout-out to whatever this is:

The Tigers’ long-time ace has now made three starts as a member of the Houston Astros—and helped them clinch their first division title since 2001—but it hasn’t gotten any less weird to see Verlander in another team’s uniform.

Detroit Tigers fans will likely never see another pitcher quite like Verlander. His MVP win is certainly up for debate but he was, at many times in his Detroit career, one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Between his MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year hardware, his six All-Star appearances, and his 56+ WAR (56.1 bWAR, 56.5 fWAR) Verlander will almost certainly end up enshrined in Cooperstown, should he remain healthy enough to have a good back end of his career. It’s hard to imagine him going in wearing anything but the old English D.

You can find Alexandra Simon ranting about things at @catswithbats, and tweeting about the Tigers on @glasshalffulmer.
newest oldest most voted

I’ve seen Justin Verlander pitch in person only once. It was in 2011, his MVP year. He had dominated the regular season, but struggled in his last start to keep him from getting his 25th win. He struggled in the Division Series, but the Tigers beat the Yankees to move on to face the Rangers in the LCS. I was at Game 1, and he wasn’t sharp, pitching around two walks and an error in the first. He allowed two runs in the second, and then Nelson Cruz tagged him for a home run in the fourth. Then there was… Read more »