It appeared during the 2015 season that fans of the Detroit Tigers just might be witnessing the beginning of the end of the brilliant career of ace starting pitcher Justin Verlander.
Verlander had won the 2006 American League Rookie of the Year Award and the 2011 AL Cy Young Award. He had also been a six-time American League All-Star at that point.
He was a key member of the rotation in that rookie 2016 season as the Tigers won their first American League Pennant in nearly two decades. In 2012, Verlander was the ace of the staff as Detroit won another AL Pennant.
The Tigers have either won the AL Central Division or finished second in nine of 12 seasons since Verlander fully joined the rotation.
In 2015, Verlander opened the season on the Disabled List. It was the first-ever appearance on the DL in his Major League Baseball career. A right triceps strain put an end to seven consecutive seasons as the Opening Day starter for the Tigers.
Finally able to return in mid-June, Verlander pitched well over the remainder of the season. But the Tigers finished in last place, just the second time in his career that had happened.
Verlander had seen his ERA rise from a 2.64 mark in 2012, a year in which he finished as the runner-up in the AL Cy voting, to 3.46 in 2013. It then rose again to the 4.54 mark in 2014. His strikeout numbers, K/9, and K:BB ratio dropped each year.
VERLANDER COMES BACK STRONG
The 2016 season opened with Verlander as somewhat of a question mark. He answered those in resoundingly positive fashion, turning back the clock with a 16-9 record.
Verlander allowed just 171 hits over 227.1 innings a year ago with a dominating 254/57 K:BB ratio. For his tremendous season, he once again finished as the runner-up in AL Cy Young voting.
The Tigers were also rejuvenated with the return of their ace. Detroit just missed the postseason, finishing 1.5 games behind the two AL Wildcard playoff positions.
Also last season, Verlander became officially engaged to longtime girlfriend Kate Upton. The high-profile couple seem to be enjoying life and enjoying one another. The solidification of the relationship may have been another factor in helping the pitcher bounce back.
Verlander opened the 2017 season with a strong outing in Chicago against the division rival White Sox. He allowed just two earned runs and six hits over 6.1 innings, striking out 10 and walking a pair while throwing 103 pitches.
AGE AND PITCH COUNTS CATCHING UP
That pitch count could eventually prove problematic. In a December 2014 piece, Diane Firstman for ESPN noted that Verlander had thrown 32,535 pitched since his big league debut. That was the most pitches thrown by any pitcher in that time span.
“Verlander…has thrown 32,535 pitches in the regular season, the sixth-most through anyone’s age-31 season since pitches began being counted in 2000. Add in another 1,688 postseason pitches and you have over 34,000 pitches dispensed from that arm in his 10-year career.” ~ Diane Firstman
Now 34 years old, Verlander is approaching an age at which many of his contemporaries began to break down. And the wear and tear on his arm is not going to do him any favors.
Roy Halladay had his final strong season at age 34 in 2011 before struggling through two more years to end his career. Cliff Lee was 34 during his final strong season in 2013, and was finished a year later.
The Tigers and their fans in the Motor City and around the country have to hope that the ace has more left in the tank. He bounced back nicely in 2016, and is beginning 2017 looking strong. For now at least, Verlander appears to be born again hard, and the Tigers can contend as long as that continues.