Houston — Justin Verlander strolled into Minute Maid Park, walking out from the tunnel in the right-field corner at about 3 p.m. Tuesday, wearing jeans and a casual shirt, his baseball cap on backwards. He peered out toward the visitors’ bullpen where several Tigers relievers were working out.
There wasn’t a single pitcher out there he would’ve known from his 13 seasons in Detroit. A couple hours later he was asked about what he sees when looks across the field at this 85-loss-and-counting Tigers team.
“There’s been a big turnover of young faces, lot of young, new talent,” he said. “It’s a team that’s still in the middle of a rebuild. I’m not around there now to really know what’s going on, but I’m sure there’s plenty of positives to be seen.
He was told there was essentially one — the last time the Tigers were this bad, the 119-loss 2003 season, it enabled them to draft a brash, right-handed pitcher from Old Dominion who threw bolts of fire out of his right hand.
“Oh, geez,” he said.
And here we are, 16 years later. That right-hander is still brash, still throwing fire, but now he dons the Houston Astros star instead of the Old English D.
Verlander will pitch against the Tigers for the second time this season Wednesday night. He will take into that game an Astros record of six straight starts with double-digit strikeouts against a team that struck out 49 times in a three-game series in Tampa.
And by the way, in those last six starts, he’s allowed nine runs in 37 innings and opponents are hitting .203 with a .240 on-base average against him.
He’s what age 36 looks like on Justin Verlander:
He leads the American League in innings pitched (169 2/3), strikeouts (228), WHIP (0.837), strikeouts-to-walks ratio (6.7) and hits per nine innings (5.7). He’s second in wins (15) and ERA (2.81) and third in WAR (5.4).
His 34.9% strikeout rate is in the top-four percentile in the major leagues. His slider is being swung and missed at 40 percent of the time and opponents are hitting .124 when they manage to put it in play. And they aren’t hitting any better off his other pitches, either — .228 off his fastball, .148 off his change-up and .205 off his curve ball.
So how has he, after coming through core surgery and a couple of injury-plagued seasons toward the end of his time in Detroit, managed to stay a couple of strides ahead of Father Time?
“I’ve changed my routine quite a bit,” he said before Tuesday's game. “I do a lot more mobility stuff and there’s a lot more maintenance now than when I was younger. I was pretty naïve, to be honest. ‘I feel good, I don’t need to do much.’
“That probably led me down the path of having core surgery.”
Verlander called that period, between the end of 2013 and into 2016, an awakening.
“Maybe if I was more knowledgeable back then I could’ve avoided some of the issues that I had,” he said. "But from that I learned a whole lot. I am very thankful that I didn’t really hurt myself (shoulder, elbow). That’s kind of the one blessing in disguise for me.
“It was kind of an awakening, if you will, through that time period and it led me to change a lot of my routine so that I could age gracefully.”
There were a couple of other factors that have boosted Verlander in his mid-30s, too. In his last year with the Tigers, then manager Brad Ausmus got Verlander in-tuned to some of the new metrics that were flooding the industry, particularly in terms of how to use his strengths against hitters’ weaknesses.
That coincided with the launch angle revolution, which made Verlander’s high-spin (2,574 rpms) and elevated fastball an absolute menace to hitters. Hitters with a pronounced upper-cut swing have trouble getting the barrel on elevated fastballs.
“That has helped me and it’s probably hurt me a little bit, too,” he said. “I throw a lot of fastballs up in the zone and there’s been the home runs (his 31 homers allowed leads baseball). But on the flip-side of that, there’s a lot of swing and misses and a lot of strikeouts.”
He has 2,934 strikeouts in his career, and is pushing to be the 18th player in history to reach the 3,000-strikeout milestone. He’s also, as we speak, the leader in the clubhouse for an award that has vexed him in recent seasons — the American League Cy Young Award.
He won it in 2011 and has since finished second in 2012, 2016 and 2018. He actually received more first-place votes from baseball writers in 2016 but still lost to former Tigers teammate Rick Porcello. He was edged by Tampa’s Blake Snell last year.
Understand, Verlander’s sights are on helping the Astros win their second World Series title in three years, not any individual hardware. But since he was asked about the Cy Young …
“It’s on the mind,” he said. “It has been just because I’ve been so close before and didn’t get it. But that’s not what motivates me. I’m just trying to be the best I can be for as long as I can. Besides, that’s out of my hands. It’s not my decision and it’s not the players’ decision. It’s writers.
“And obviously I’ve had a couple of issues with a couple of votes in the past. My wife did as well (laughter).”
His wife, actress-model Kate Upton, famously took to social media after the 2016 vote, colorfully chastising the voters saying, to paraphrase, the she thought she was the only one who could screw Justin Verlander.
“I am just trying to do the best I can and at the end of the season, just let the chips fall where they may.”