Published Nov. 4, 2017
Justin Verlander is going into the Hall of Fame. His ticket is punched. There’s a space for his plaque now in Cooperstown.
This isn’t opinion.
Verlander has been chopping away at the tall weeds on the path to the Hall with a scythe for 13 seasons, and with a World Series title in tow, he’s finally in the clearing.
He still doesn’t have an official victory in the World Series (career mark: 0-3), but tell that to the Astros and their fans, who merely saw Verlander save their season when he came from the Tigers at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 31. He never lost a game as an Astro—not in his five regular season starts, and not in the postseason. A big fat goose egg under the L column.
Astros finally wander into deep end of the pool
The Astros were wobbly and coming off a bad August when the trade for JV was completed. Their pitching staff looked worn and in dire need of another top drawer starter. The “experts” looked at the Astros and said the team had “first round exit” written all over it.
Then the Astros, who don’t normally wade into the deep end of the pool when it comes to poaching expensive players from other teams, decided that enough was enough. The franchise debuted in the big leagues in 1962 and in their only World Series (2005), they were swept.
Management looked at the cache of young hitters and saw a team begging for another elite starting pitcher—someone who could make the difference between going home early in October, or winning the whole shebang. The hitters are young but who the hell knows when you’ll get another chance like the Astros had in 2017: a powerhouse offense that was storming, unabated, to a division title.
When you’re in your 56th MLB season and have no hardware to show for it, you’d be derelict if you didn’t seize the moment, and the Astros did when they opened up their pocketbook and chased Verlander.
Verlander didn’t get a World Series “W” but he pitched well in the Fall Classic. And, frankly, the Astros don’t even get to the Series without Verlander, who was the ALCS MVP. In the ALDS against Boston, Verlander entered Game 4 in relief and got some crucial outs to help secure that series.
So you can stuff that “he still hasn’t won a World Series game” talk up Uranus.
Not a champion in Detroit, but that’s OK
Now, if you pumped him full of truth serum, Verlander might tell you that for all the success he’s enjoyed in Houston since Sept. 1, there’s no telling how much more enjoyable it would have been, had it happened in Detroit.
The great Bob Lanier, still no. 1 of all Pistons’ big men, practically begged Jack McCloskey for a trade out of Detroit in 1980, and Jack complied, sending Bob to the Milwaukee Bucks, an elite team at the time.
The Bucks never quite got Lanier that elusive ring, despite several deep playoff runs between 1980-84. The Bucks could never get past the 76ers in the spring.
When Lanier finally got moved out of Detroit in his 10th season as a Piston, he was happy but he told the media, “I wanted it to happen in Detroit. Whatever success I have with the Bucks, I wish it would have happened in Detroit.”
Tigers fans who saw Verlander hoist the World Series trophy on Wednesday night had the same feeling that Lanier did. They wished that it happened in Detroit.
So Verlander, I’m sure, waxed a tad melancholy after Game 7, wishing that he was a world champion as a Tiger.
But I’m also sure that those feelings didn’t last long.
Professional athletes are mostly driven to win, despite the cynics who say the players are only in it for the money. That’s a bunch of hogwash. They want to win, because they know that when legacies are compared, how many championship rings you have is usually the tiebreaker.
You can crab at the aging veteran who signs a contract late in his career to chase a ring as a Johnny-come-lately, but that just serves to confirm my postulate.
Lanier wanted out of Detroit because the Pistons were lousy with a bleak future. He was 31 years old and time was running out for him to become a world champion.
Verlander, as I’ve chronicled before, is a pitcher who is addicted to big games. His type soaks up the bright lights, like a plant in photosynthesis. Ironically, I theorized last November that JV might approve a trade to the Dodgers in order to get a ring. Silly me.
If you asked JV on Aug. 30 if he’d like to be pitching in the World Series seven weeks later—but that he’d have to sell his soul to make it happen, he’d ask for a pen on the spot.
Yet Verlander didn’t demand a trade from Tigers GM Al Avila. In fact, Avila needed Verlander’s permission to proceed.
The Hall beckons, but when?
And now the path to Cooperstown is cleared.
Before long, Verlander will have his 200th career win (he has 188 now). His winning percentage is over .600 and his career WHIP—the analytics people love this so they can’t dismiss it now—is a very slim 1.184.
The postseason WHIP is even better: 1.015 in 21 career starts.
If you’re still looking for 300 wins as a Hall of Fame benchmark, forget it. It’s a different game now. Today’s starting pitchers are lucky to get 30 decisions in any given year. The five-man rotation and the five-inning games have turned pitching analytics on their ear.
I can hear the Jack Morris boosters now.
Morris has 254 career wins. He, too, rose to the occasion in October. But Morris’ WHIP is 1.296 and his ERA is 3.90, both a little high for Hall membership. That is opinion.
But Morris was never Rookie of the Year. He never won a Cy Young Award, nor was he ever his league’s MVP—all of the honors that Verlander has on his resume.
Verlander has even out-no-hit Morris, two to one.
The Tigers franchise hasn’t had a player inducted into the Hall of Fame wearing the Old English D since Hal Newhouser in 1992. And Newhouser pitched for the team 70 years ago.
Between the 1968 and 1984 world champion Tigers teams, only one player is enshrined in Cooperstown as a Tiger: Al Kaline. That was in 1980.
Justin Verlander will break that streak. The only question is when. And yes, he’ll go into the Hall wearing a Tigers cap. Fear not.
He doesn’t need truth serum to tell you that.