Henning: Tigers' Verlander has his groove on
Lakeland, Fla. — Never is it easy stealing a moment from Justin Verlander. Never has there been a Tigers player so perpetually in motion.
Off the mound he is as high-RPM and focused as he is during a game when hitters are his quarry. He arrives. He dresses at his new clubhouse locker at Tigertown. He heads to the dining room for something nourishing. He is back. He is on the field. He tunes for a new season three days before birthday No. 34.
He is a fascinating study in style as he moves closer to slam-dunk Hall of Fame status.
He is also living, it seems, the American male’s fantasy (see: Tom Brady, New England Patriots, married to Gisele Bundchen).
Verlander is a fairly regular All-Star and Cy Young Award contestant who missed by a few ticks winning another Cy Young in 2016. He is owner of a nearly guaranteed payday from the Tigers that could hit $200 million by the time he’s ready for a rest.
He is engaged to a woman, Kate Upton, you might have noticed this week on (a) Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue cover or (b) on Jimmy Kimmel, or even (c) on CNBC’s Power Lunch in an interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin.
He happens also to be, in the fashion of every James Bond character ever cast, a car guy who drives some of the world’s most robust automobiles.
Snap out of it, men. This dream is sole property of a Tigers pitcher heading into his 12th season in Detroit.
“I don’t sit back and smile about it, per se,” Verlander said Friday morning as he dressed for a fourth day of spring camp.
It was half-anticipated Verlander would, in fact, grin at thoughts of his blessings and good fortune. Instead he spoke with a seasoned view of life in 2017. There was no fantasy, no mirth, in his voice or in his expression. There was a sense of acceptance and responsibility.
“I don’t think anybody should take any of this for granted,” he said, flipping through his cherry wood locker. “At the same time I’ve worked very hard for this.
“I don’t try to shove my work ethic in people’s face, but I think, to a large extent, that’s why I’m here.”
He is right. Absolutely right.
Tools to excel
The arm and his flair for throwing a baseball were bestowed upon an exceptional athlete who is 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, lean and sturdy as an ax handle. The rest, as he knows, was up to Verlander.
His workout routine is militaristic. He does not take time off that isn’t required of a body and arm at the heart of his vocation. He is smart and tactical on the mound and has only grown more sage in knowing how to beat hitters.
He gets the most out of his weaponry because of incredible talent. He can throw a high-zone fastball and earn a strikeout, or just as effectively, coax a pop-up that makes him one of the highest-percentage pop-up pitchers in the game. He can spin a curveball with such tight rotation — he had a big jump in spin-velocity in 2016 — that he misses a bat or lures the batter into mis-hitting it.
These are the tools and the tenets of a pitcher on his steady path to Cooperstown. It is his skill — and his “wiring,” to use a term favored by old great Orel Hershiser in describing mental-physical connections — that make him a great bet to age sublimely, crafting one season after another of 200-inning work shifts.
This was why some of us two or three years ago, when Verlander was having issues, never for a moment bought ideas he was finished. It was going to be an interruption. A time of adjustment. Of overhaul, even, as he dealt with realities and mechanics and inevitabilities.
But he would get back to being Verlander. And he did. Not often at 100 mph, but plenty of times at 96 and even 97, with all that pitch-spin, guile and savvy in his quiver. Look at those 2016 numbers, at age 33, and you get an awesome window into what makes him special: 227⅔ innings, 171 hits, 254 strikeouts, 56 unintentional walks, a league-leading (starter) WHIP of 1.00, and the highest WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of any big-league pitcher (6.6).
It was incredible mound mastery, what the Tigers and baseball saw from a superstar in most of his 34 starts.
In step with the artistry, it’s not in dispute, even by Verlander, that his happy life with Upton is part of a man’s peace. That it’s the natural product and male dividend of a woman’s exceptional beauty isn’t a correct, or honorable, take.
“I’m blessed to be in a great relationship,” Verlander said. “But I don’t think the fact my fiancée is an actress or model makes me any better than anyone else in a happy relationship.”
Nicely stated, Mr. Ace.
In fact, you can look at Hollywood as the Valhalla that cuts both ways. For all the storybook stuff, there is strife, and divorce, and ruin, and depression, and bonus evidence to suggest money and fame aren’t such idyllic conditions, after all.
Verlander has a neat handle on all of this. His fiancée seems to have similar thoughts, probably self-evident when it’s remembered that this relationship is going on five or so years. There’s a soulfulness that over extended time partners come to know and share. Mysteries about one another, and about values, evaporate.
And if that’s the case, as Verlander suggested Friday, good for him. Good for the Tigers. Good for all who have come during these years in baseball to appreciate a certain pitcher’s uniqueness, and, yes, his happiness.