Houston – As he sat with Kate Upton, his fiancé at the time, in his condo in Birmingham, with two Tigers’ front office executives waiting for his decision outside in a car and with Astros president and general manager Jeff Luhnow waiting by his phone for the same decision, Justin Verlander was thinking about the fans.
He had no real concerns about waiving his no-trade clause to allow the Tigers to trade him to the Astros. Baseball-wise, it was a no-brainer. He’d be going from a rebuilding team to a championship contender. His concern was how his decision would play to Tigers nation.
“As far as a pure baseball decision, I think it was pretty clear-cut,” Verlander said, speaking to reporters Friday in front of his locker in the Astros clubhouse. “If you just think baseball. But if you are thinking about what I started in Detroit and the relationship I created with the fans there – all that stuff matters to me.
“You’ve seen horror stories of some athletes that were prominent in cities who bow out in not the right fashion, or it didn’t come across right to the fans.”
Think LeBron James taking his talents to Miami, breaking the hearts of Cleveland fans in a nationally televised one-on-one interview with Jim Gray.
“I didn’t want to do that to the Detroit fans,” Verlander said. “I wanted to leave on a good note and not leave with a sour taste in their mouth. I think everybody understood how tough a decision it was for me, one, and two, why I made my decision.”
That all played out better than he could have scripted it, as the vast majority of Tiger Nation cheered Verlander as he went on to help the Astros clinch the American League West (he went 5-0, with a 1.06 ERA), then blow through the playoffs (he was the ALCS MVP) and win his first World Series.
The Tigers will be watching on Saturday as Verlander and the rest of his Astros teammates, along with current Tigers Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano, get their World Series rings.
“I am very happy with the support I got from Detroit and from Michigan,” Verlander said. “Honestly, I was really touched by it. All the fans saying they were rooting for Houston once the Tigers were out of it. That meant a lot to me.
“I hope the fans understand how much they meant to me throughout my career there.”
No slowing down
Verlander had dinner with Michael Fulmer and a couple of other Tigers players on Thursday night and he admitted that he’s already getting antsy about facing his former team on Sunday.
“It’s going to be interesting,” he said. “I can already tell it’s going to be a little different. I feel more differently about this one than a normal start. But it’s not the same as it would be if it was at Comerica Park. That will be something completely different.
“But, I am looking forward to it.”
Verlander still keeps up with the Tigers.
“I haven’t unfollowed them on social media,” he joked.
He still texts with several of his former teammates. He was excited with how the team was playing earlier in the year – though he wasn’t completely on board with the Rally Goose. And he understands that they have hit a rough patch.
“Detroit is always going to have a place in my heart,” he said. “I will always root for that organization. Just not against us.”
It’s been intimated on social media that Verlander wanted to pitch against the Tigers Sunday, even though it means he won’t be able to pitch in the All-Star Game; he was selected for the seventh time.
“This is just how the schedule worked out,” he said. “We ended up giving Lance (McCullers) a couple more days of rest. As I told A.J. (Hinch, Astros manager) when I got here last year, I have always worked extremely hard to be prepared to throw every five days. And I told him with guys who haven’t logged a ton of innings, if he needed to bump me up now and again, I am all for it.
“This is just how the dominoes fell.”
Verlander, in his age 35 season, is killing it, again. His 2.05 ERA, his 20 starts and his 0.828 WHIP are tops in the Major Leagues. His 160 strikeouts (in 131.2 innings) are sixth-most. His 6.67 strikeouts-to-walks ratio is the best of his career.
Opponents are hitting .179 against him.
But there is one misconception that he helped clear up Friday. He didn’t become a great pitcher after he was traded to Houston. He was pitching superbly the last two months before the trade was made.
“I was,” he said. “Obviously, a couple of teams took notice but it was much easier to notice when I got here because we were pitching for a championship team and going to the playoffs. It just got more notoriety.”
The public notion was that the Astros’ advanced analytics transformed him into the dominant pitcher he has been since putting on an Astros uniform.
“There were a few little things I changed, and that got a lot of publicity about the analytics here,” Verlander said. “That that’s what made me return to Cy Young form. But I was already there. I figured it out in Detroit – and we talked about it at length there – and it just carried over.”
Verlander continues to give the Astros analytics department credit for getting him to scrap his two-seam fastball. But throwing his four-seamer effectively up in the strike zone, he was doing that in Detroit.
“All the rest of it, I don’t want to say it’s common sense stuff, but pitchers, you start to trend toward what works,” he said. “If somebody brings a pitcher something and says, ‘Hey, this is what’s working,’ most of the time the guy knows it already.
“I knew in my heart that pitching up, for me, was effective. I started doing that in Detroit for two years and I did it effectively. So when they say, ‘Hey, your fastball up is really good,’ – I know.”
Think about how much Verlander’s life changed from the time, at about 11:59 p.m. on Aug. 31, when Verlander agreed to waive his no-trade clause, to early in November when he and Upton got married in Tuscany.
The man has been collecting rings.
“It’s crazy how quick things can happen,” he said. “It seems like forever ago, so much has happened since the trade. I am a married man now. I won a World Series ring and got a wedding ring and it all happened in the span of a month.
“It’s been fun and different to shake things up for me personally. To step into a locker room where I didn’t know anybody – that hadn’t happened since I stepped into the clubhouse in Lakeland my first spring training. It’s just been really different, and it’s been really fun.”
He’s not going to recognize too many of the Tigers’ hitters he will face Sunday. Nick Castellanos, for sure. Victor Martinez. John Hicks, fellow Goochland, Virginia, native. But no Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton or Alex Avila.
“I know enough of them,” Verlander joked. “Once I get out there, it will be business as usual, but right now I can tell I feel a little differently about it. I know these guys so well, a lot of them. I went to dinner with a couple of them – that’s not something I normally do with teams I am going against.
“I will have a little more nerves Sunday morning, more than a normal regular-season start. But once I get on the mound, it’s game-on.”
Tigers at Astros
First pitch: 4:10 p.m., Saturday
TV/radio: FSD, 97.1
Gerrit Cole (9-2, 2.57), Astros: He is expected to be back from bereavement leave and make his regularly scheduled start. He's coming off a strong six shutout, three-hit effort against the A's. He struck out 11 in those six innings.
Michael Fulmer (3-8, 4.11), Tigers: The Tigers are 1-5 in his last six starts, despite him allowing just 14 runs in 40.2 innings and limiting opponents to a .234 batting average and a .361 slugging percentage. He’s gotten less than three runs of support per game (2.87) in his 18 starts this season.