Tigers' Verlander focuses on elusive ring, not legacy

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Third in a series that previews the 2017 MLB season. Today: Detroit Tigers pitchers.

Lakeland, Fla. — It’s too cliché, too overstated for Justin Verlander’s taste. Which is not to say he disagrees with it.

“A new lease on life?” he said, repeating the question after one of his dominant starts late in spring training. “Yeah, that’s overstating it a little bit. But I definitely don’t take for granted that I am feeling good.”

As he battled his way through core muscle and triceps injuries in 2014 and 2015, he was written off by many baseball pundits, both nationally and local. The Tigers organization was concerned, too. If their ace wasn’t going to return to form, they had to get cracking on a total revamp of their pitching staff.

As it turned out, Verlander became the catalyst of a revival of the club’s starting rotation.

“If Justin Verlander doesn’t pitch the way he pitched at the end of 2015,” said general manager Al Avila before the 2016 season, “things may have looked very different around here.”

Verlander’s last 11 starts (2.12 ERA, opponent’s average .194) told Avila he still had a veteran ace to build a staff around. He had acquired promising young pitchers Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd at the trade deadline in 2015, and then before the 2016 season signed free agent Jordan Zimmermann.

That is the staff, along with veteran Anibal Sanchez who was battling Boyd for the final spot, the Tigers are pinning much of their hopes on in 2017.

“We are going to lean a lot on our starting pitching,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “And we are going to lean on the health of our players.”

And Verlander, in full health, is back in full force. He won more first-place votes for the Cy Young Award last season than the winner, Boston’s Rick Porcello. Of all the contenders, Verlander scored highest in games started (34), strikeouts (254), WHIP (1.00), opponent’s batting average (.207), innings pitched (227), pitchers’ WAR (6.6) and WAR (5.2).

The only category he trailed in was run support. He had the lowest among the candidates.

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“You could make the argument that he is a better pitcher now than he was before,” Ausmus said late last season. “Certainly, he’s had a renaissance. He’s doing some things better than he was in his Cy Young prime. He’s made some adjustments — and, as a result, he continues to be one of the best pitchers in the league.”

Verlander is 34. He will be 37 when his contract with the Tigers is up in 2020. When he signed that contract, he thought it could possibly be his last. Now, having seemingly reset the clock, he’s not so sure.

“I’m kind of thankful I didn’t hurt myself, hurt my arm significantly, when I was throwing through pain,” Verlander said, referencing 2014-2015. “I was throwing differently than I had my whole career. I am really glad I didn’t hurt myself.

“I don’t know if I reset the clock, or gave myself more time. It’s just when you are healthy, everything is easier. … I never thought about it until I was not feeling every well. But before then, I planned on, and still plan on, playing for as long as I can.”

If his health holds, his mastery of four pitches would certainly play well even at diminished velocity. It’s not out of the realm that he could pitch into his 40s.

“If a pitcher can stay healthy, he has the advantage of being able to pitch with less velocity,” Verlander said. “Whereas a hitter goes down if his bat speed goes away. It’s a little bit tough, especially when you are going against all these younger guys with their velocity up so high now.”

What sets Verlander apart — what sets most great players apart — is that he not only still loves the game, he still enjoys the grind. He’s one of the highest paid players in the game, he’s engaged to actress and supermodel Kate Upton, he’s got a fleet of high-performance cars — his is a rock star’s life.

But he still enjoys going to the yard, going through an off-season conditioning and arm program that he’s just about perfected, throwing his bullpens, doing all the dirty work that got him to this level in the first place.

“I still enjoy all of that,” he said.

And believe this, the competitive fire burns every bit as hot in him now as it did his rookie season in 2006.

“That’s not going anywhere,” he said. “If that happens then I’ll probably step away from the game. But I don’t foresee that ever happening.”

He became just the second Tigers pitcher to amass 2,000 career strikeouts last year. No pitcher in baseball has had more wins (173) or strikeouts (2,190) since 2006. He won a Cy Young Award and an MVP. He’s thrown two no-hitters. He’s a former Rookie of the Year and a six-time All-Star.

One would think Cooperstown awaits.

But this isn’t the time, Verlander said, to worry about matters of legacy.

“I still want to achieve,” he said. “I don’t really look back and say, ‘Wow, I’ve done this and I’ve done that.’ I know it’s very cool and I don’t take any of it for granted. But I am just trying to push forward, never resting on my laurels.”

There is still one conspicuous void in his trophy room: Two World Series appearances, no ring.

“That’s the one glaring thing that’s missing on the resume, for sure,” he said.

There was a time early in the offseason when Verlander wasn’t sure he was going to be a Tiger this season, let alone fight for the elusive championship. But Avila and ownership decided to make another run with this team essentially intact.

“Let’s go win,” Verlander said. “I think there was a lot going on, a lot of talk and you really can’t focus on that. You focus on doing what you’ve got to do. Do you work, your regular offseason program and see what happens.

“This was the offseason we were all supposed to be broke up and I wasn’t going to know anybody. Now, it’s probably the most familiar faces since I’ve been here. Thankfully.”

And with the death of owner Mike Ilitch in February, Verlander thinks the club may get some heavenly influence this season.

“I know in his heart he loved baseball,” Verlander said. “He played minor league ball. And he did everything he possibly could for us. It just tears me to pieces we couldn’t do it (win a championship) for him.

“Hopefully he will be an angel on our side this year, watching from above. I hope we can get it done for him.”