Baseball, like most sports, is a game of stories. The reason I’m writing this, the reason any scribe writes anything in baseball, is to tell a story. Some stories are straight to the point, some have elaborate tales interwoven between anecdotes. Some stories have villains, and some have heroes. And every now and then, some baseball stories tell the tale of how a hero has fallen. But let’s hold off on that story when talking about Justin Verlander, shall we?
Verlander has been struggling. People have been panicking. But at some point, you have to step back an examine when a funk is just a funk or when it’s the signal that one of the game’s heroes is in real trouble. Over Verlander’s last five starts, he’s given up five or more runs in four of them. He’s battling the demon of the walk more than he ever has in his career. He knows he’s struggling, but so far, there’s been no magnificent turnaround.
“The stuff was there,” Verlander said after Wednesday’s poor start. “Just execute a little bit better and repeat … it’s not tinkering anymore.”
The important thing to remember is this is a Major League pitcher with a Cy Young Award under his belt and numerous top-five Cy Young finishes. Oh, and he’s just 31 years old. Verlander has hit a rough patch, but at 31, an elite pitcher has generally not hit the end of the line. Unless stricken with injury, a 31-year-old ace is still an ace. When bad starts spring up, everyone wants an answer. They want the problem corrected immediately. And surely, Verlander wants this more than anyone. But to suggest that Verlander is not an ace or is at the tail-end of his run is to fail to consider the true fall of heroes past.
Roy Halladay is the most-recent example and easiest correlation to Verlander. The two had similar career. Queit dominance. Cy Young Awards and top finishes. Halladay, though, finished his career before many thought he would. His star began its decent from the universe after the 2011 season. And his decline was largely due to injury — because even at 36, Halladay was to young to retire. Halladay suffered through two rough seasons before injuries forced him to call it a career. In his case, we saw the hero falling, but there was nothing that could be done to save him.
Line Halladay and Verlander up side by side. Do they feel the same? Probably not.
Pedro Martinez is another contemporary example of a fallen hero. He succumbed to injury just as Halladay did. Martinez’s dominance was unquestionable. With three Cy Young Awards and four additional top-five finishes in the Cy Young Award race, Martinez was an incredible force. He was the type of hero you may have struggled with. Was he a reluctant hero? Was he a villain in disguise? Or was he simply one of the game’s greats hidden in a compact, unassuming frame? Martinez’s fall took four years and did not begin until he was 34 years old.
Again, placing Verlander and Martinez side by side, shows the inconsistencies in their tales.
The comparisons could go on all day, but remember, most heroes fall because of age or injury. Verlander is not plagued by either. In Halladay’s and Martinez’s case, the decline came around the age of 34. Perhaps the same fate will strike Verlander. At that point, we can have the discussion about his defending star. Until then, give him time.
In 2008, a 25-year-old Verlander posted a 4.84 ERA. That certainly wasn’t the end to his dominance. He simply went on to win a Cy Young after that and help the Tigers to three playoff appearances and one World Series. Why shouldn’t we assume the same type of recovery will once again happen? Because he’s now in his 30’s? Generally, a baseball player hits his peak somewhere between 28-32. Verlander is either still in his peak years or just passing over the peak.
We could examine the advanced statistics, and I encourage you to do so, but this is a tale of fallen heroes. Let’s not cloud such a thing with numbers and reality. Let the story be that Verlander’s dominance was incredible but fleeting. Let the story be that at 31 years old, Verlander is no longer an ace and must defer to Max Scherzer (who may not even be in Detroit next season, by the way). Let the story be that a few bad starts strung together means the end is here. That would be the story if we let it.
Instead, I like to think of this as yet another opportunity for redemption. Verlander is sitting on a 4.61 ERA. He has seen that ERA blow up from 2.67 on May 9th to what it is today. If his numbers could jump that high that fast, it’s reasonable to assume that they could fall equally as fast. This is not a story of the end, but the story of yet another beginning. The Tigers are in first place in the American League Central by two games. The league is full of so much parity this season, though. They will need Verlander to help them maintain that lead and to take another shot at a deep playoff run. This story is one that has been framed for Verlander’s heroism to rise from the ashes of these early-June reports of demise. Should he bounce-back, as he so often does, and lead the Tigers to the World Series, our hero will once again stand above the rest, laughing at the time we thought he had fallen.
There’s no question, Verlander will do anything he can to get his club back into a position to head to the World Series. Don’t think he or any of the Tigers have forgotten about their loss to the Boston Red Sox last year. That drive, and Verlander’s unyielding determination as a pitcher, heavily favor a story of recovery. Not a story of defeat. Heroes will fall, but this hero is simply giving us a great story to tell at the end of the year.