Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Verlander's 2011 Season Might Just Be the Beginning of the Rest of His Career

If Justin Verlander can ever figure out how to pitch in the month of April, he might flirt with 30 wins every year, not 20.

Verlander, the AL Cy Young and MVP winner for 2011, went to Lakeland last February on a mission.

He wanted very much to slay his personal dragon that is April. His first months of his seasons have been warts on an otherwise brilliant (so far) career.

Verlander, prior to 2011, had been a tortoise in April. The fact that he's turned hare the rest of the season has been comforting, but you were always left to wonder: how good of a season might he have had, if he didn't wait till May to get going?

Even 2011, his year of years, had some of that slow startness to it, albeit not tortoise-like. More like Victor Martinez type slow.

Verlander's ERA in April was 3.64. On most teams that would make you the no. 2 starter---at least.

But this is Justin Verlander we're talking about. The kid who can bring you to your feet in the first inning and keep you there, as you look over at the left field scoreboard and see a string of zeroes to the right of the team the Tigers are playing that day.

And I mean ALL the way to the right, if you get my drift.

Baseball and numbers are like peanut butter and jelly; separate, they're good, but combined they create a tasty treat.

So here are some more numbers.

Verlander's season ERA was 2.40, which means that his April mark of 3.64 was a full 1.24 run higher, or about 50%.

His record in April was 2-3. After that, he went on a 22-2 run. His ERA from May on was 2.15.

Verlander made six starts in April, gaining a decision in five of them. Had he won all six, he would have been just two wins away from becoming the first 30-game winner since Denny McLain in 1968.

Crazy talk? How do you figure?

Verlander had winning streaks of seven and 12 games in 2011. JV winning six in a row isn't exactly a pie-in-the-sky type of thought.

That's the bottom line: if Verlander went 6-0 in April, he'd have won 28 games. Math is till math.

And this is the era of the five-man rotation, by the way. McLain won his 31 games pitching every fourth day for the '68 Tigers. On a couple occasions, Denny took the hill on just two days' rest.

The five-man rotation inevitably will provide an extra day's rest, due to off days. In 2011, Verlander pitched on five days' rest on 11 occasions, instead of his usual four. That's about a third of his 34 starts.

Could Verlander ever win 30 games in a season?

It's not likely---but it is possible.

Yes, 34 or 35 starts (the average for a no. 1 starter) doesn't leave much margin for error---or for no decisions. The good news is that Verlander doesn't really need a margin for error.

His 22-2 mark after April proves that.

Verlander's 29 decisions in 2011 were the most in his still young career. His 251 innings eclipsed his previous high by 11 innings.

The numbers continue to be staggering, the more you look at them.

Aside from a 2008 season (17 losses) that is looking more and more like an anomaly, Verlander has never lost more than nine games in a season. In 2007 he lost six; in 2011, he lost five.

In six big league seasons, Verlander has: won the Rookie of the Year Award; pitched in a World Series; pitched in two LDS series and two LCS series; thrown two no-hitters; come close to at least two more; won a Cy Young Award; and won an MVP Award.

He's 28 years old.

Could Justin Verlander end up being the greatest pitcher in Detroit Tigers history?

Hey, is he already?

I'm a grizzled, cranky old coot most of the time. I'm not one to anoint anyone after six paltry seasons. I still think Oscar Robertson was better than Michael Jordan, to show you.

But sometimes a player comes along who just gives off a vibe that he's only going to get better---or at the very least, not let up.

Justin Verlander strikes me as that kind of player.

It's almost mind-numbing to look at Verlander's numbers so far and then imagine the damage he can do by the time he's 35 years old.

He has 107 wins now. By 35 he could have nearly 250.

He has 1,215 strikeouts now. By 35 he could have over 2,800.

He has two no-hitters now. By 35 he could threaten Nolan Ryan's record of seven no-nos.

How many more Cy Youngs will he win? And now that he's captured the MVP, who's to say that he can't do it again in the near future?

Barring the unthinkable---a major health issue---I'd say that Justin Verlander is on track to a place in Cooperstown.

Kind of makes all the debate about whether a pitcher should win an MVP Award rather silly, doesn't it?

Friday, November 04, 2011

Ordonez's Tigers Career Didn't End As It Should

When Magglio Ordonez first put on a Tigers uniform, he could barely move.

The Tigers signed Ordonez from the Chicago White Sox as a free agent after the 2004 season. It was considered a coup for GM Dave Dombrowski---a proven slugger from within the Tigers' own division, no less.

But when the curtain was raised for the 2005 season, Ordonez was felled by a painful sports hernia injury. After going 0-for-10 in the season's opening week, the Tigers shut him down so he could recover.

Maggs didn't return to the Tigers lineup until July 1. Yet he still managed to hit .302 with eight HR and 46 RBI in 305 at-bats.

The following year, Ordonez sent the Tigers to the World Series with his walk-off homer off Oakland's Huston Street to clinch the pennant.

In 2007, Ordonez was the AL's batting champ, hitting a robust .363.

Now it appears that Ordonez's Tigers career is going to end similar to how it began: with him hurt, unable to play. A broken ankle revealed during the 2011 ALCS put the proverbial writing on the wall.

Dombrowski met the press earlier this week and all but guaranteed that Ordonez, 37 and 38 before next season begins, won't be back with the Tigers in 2012.

I've written it before, but it bears repeating.

Precious few are the professional athletes who can call their own shots, if you will, when it comes to deciding when they're going to leave their respective games, and how.

Doesn't matter if you're a Hall of Famer or a bench warmer; your body often makes the call, not your heart or your brain.

How blessed is the athlete who can walk away, on his own terms, healthy as a horse but simply too old for the game?

How great is it that Al Kaline was able to declare the 1974 season the last of his great 22-year Tigers career, and in pursuit of 3,000 career hits to boot? How great is it that he wasn't forced into retirement due to his painful foot, which bothered him almost his entire career?

But for every Kaline there's a whole bunch of Ordonezes.

This isn't necessarily an obituary on Magglio Ordonez's big league baseball career, but at 38 and coming off yet another broken ankle, the number of suitors for his services isn't likely to be a very big number---if a number at all.

During the ALCS but before his latest ankle injury (he broke it originally in July 2010), Maggs told reporters that he considered retiring this summer.

But after the new injury (but before Dombrowski talked to the press), Ordonez was ruling out retirement; he wanted to play in 2012.

Again, that decision may not be his to make.

Ordonez was among the finest of Tigers that I have enjoyed following and covering. He didn't bitch, he didn't whine, he didn't grumble.

All he did was go out, hit his .300+, and rap out an impressive amount of clutch hits in his seven years as a Tiger.

We all knew when Kaline was taking his final at-bat, because it came in the game that we all knew was Al's last. So we were afforded a proper goodbye.

Ordonez's latest ankle injury---the one that probably squashed his slim chances of being asked back by the Tigers for 2012---was diagnosed, pretty much, during a rain delay in Texas in the ALCS.

That's not how a great Tigers career should end.

As if we need another reminder of how heartless and uninterested in poetry the athlete's body can be.