Today the Houston Astros will send veteran right-hander Justin Verlander to the mound against Chris Sale and the Boston Red Sox in Game One of the 2017 American League Division Series. We will be running profiles for all of the playoff starters this year, looking into their backgrounds and what they were like as prospects and where they may stand in history. Let’s get to Verlander, long-time Detroit Tigers ace who came over in a deadline trade to Houston this summer.
Justin Verlander was a starting pitcher for three seasons at Old Dominion University. His best season was actually his freshman year in 2002 (1.91 ERA, 137/43 K/BB in 113 innings). His sophomore (2.40, 139/43 in 116 innings) and junior (3.49, 151/43 K/BB in 106) showed no real gains in pitching skill plus some inconsistency with command, but scouts loved his stuff and saw him as a potential rotation anchor.
The Tigers drafted him in the first round, second overall, in 2004. Contract problems prevented him from playing that summer. Here’s the report from the spring of 2005:
The second overall pick in the 2004 draft, Justin Verlander had a contentious contract negotiation, and for a while it looked like he would not sign. At one point, the Tigers took their offer off the table, “moving on” and looking towards 2005. With that, Verlander’s dad took control of the negotiations, and the issue was resolved with a $3.1 million bonus and a Major League contract. Verlander has excellent stuff: 93-96 MPH fastball, sometimes hitting 98-99. He also has a good curve, and his changeup shows promise. His college performance did not always match his stuff, as he was sometimes undone by poor command. I haven’t seen him in person, but looking at his scouting videos, the only weird thing I see is in his delivery from the stretch. With runners on base, his delivery has some hesitation in it, a little hitch as he brings the ball forward that is not there when he uses the regular windup. It looks like it could hurt his command, a bad thing with runners on, of course. If the Tigers see it too, they may want to consider smoothing that out. Anyhow, I like Verlander and will give him a grade befitting the second overall pick, but he may take more time to develop than many college pitchers if mechanical tweaks really are necessary. Grade B+.
Verlander opened his professional career by zipping through the High-A and Double-A levels in 2005, going 11-2 with a 1.29 ERA in 119 innings, 136/26 K/BB. He lost his first two major league starts down the stretch with the Tigers but overall his season was superb, firmly establishing him as the top pitching prospect in baseball. Lingering control and mechanical issues from college were cleaned up and the results were obvious. Here’s the report entering 2006:
The knock on Justin Verlander in college was erratic control. The second player drafted in 2004, he exceeded all expectations with a stunningly good 2005 campaign. Sure, he was knocked around in two major league starts. But look at his minor league numbers: 11-2, 1.29 ERA, 136/26 K/BB in 119 innings. It doesn’t get better than that. Verlander has blistering heat, good breaking stuff, and made massive improvement with his control last year. With Felix Hernandez now in the majors, Verlander looks like the best pitching prospect in baseball to me. The only thing that could go wrong would be injury. I suppose his control could go backwards, but if the Tigers handle him properly that does not seem very likely. Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman should anchor the Detroit rotation for years to come. Grade A.
Teammate Jeremy Bonderman became a serviceable starter but Verlander was far more, emerging as the ace of the staff and American League Rookie of the Year in 2006. He won the Cy Young Award in 2011, led the American League in strikeouts four times and with victories twice. He finally began to show his age in 2014 but remained an effective starter most of the time, then moved on to the Astros at the trade deadline in 2017, helping them reach the post-season with an excellent September run.
Through his career Verlander has thrown 2545 innings with a 3.46 ERA, 124 ERA+, with a 188-114 record, 2416/81 K/BB ratio, generating 56.9 career fWAR. Peak seasons include 2009 (7.7) and 2012 (6.8). He has an additional 98 innings in the post-season, going 7-5 in 16 starts with a 3.39 ERA, 112/30 K/BB.
In historical terms, Sim Score comparisons include Roy Oswalt, Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez, Ron Guidry, Jake Peavy, Chris Carpenter, Mike Mussina, and Brett Saberhagen. If Verlander’s career ended today, his 56.9 WAR would put him, among pitchers with a similar number of innings, in the neighborhood of Hal Newhouser (60.7), Chuck Finley (56.9), Dwight Gooden (56.7), David Cone (56), Saberhagen (55.3), and Sandy Koufax (54.5).
Barring an injury disaster Verlander’s career is not ending today and just a few more good seasons will get him into Hall of Fame consideration. Overall, he’s met or exceeded every expectation from his days as a prospect.