Revisiting “Justin Verlander-for-Closer”

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On Saturday, we got the news that former Tiger and current Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander will undergo the ‘Tommy John’ Surgery that many reported he needed at the beginning of this abbreviated 2020 season.

It makes sense that Justin Verlander wanted to make every effort to avoid surgery given his age, competitive nature, and Houston’s chances at another championship. With ‘JV’ scheduled to be a free agent when he’s likely to be back to full health beginning in 2022, it begs two questions.

First, has Justin Verlander thrown his last pitch as a member of the Astros? According to ‘Baseball-Reference,’ the 37-year old has been worth approximately 16 wins during his two-plus seasons in Houston but will be a free agent after 2021. Even if he never plays for the Astros again, he’ll be revered in Houston for leading them to their first-ever title. Maybe he moves on to a new challenge, or better yet, perhaps he tries to capture his second title in a city he knows and loves in returning to Detroit.

Verlander saw first-hand what energy revitalizing your career can bring to your game and Detroit as a whole. In 2006, Verlander’s first full season, a then 23-year old watched 41-year old Kenny Rogers return Detroit to baseball relevance when Rogers led the Tigers to their first World Series in more than 20 years. ‘JV’ is smart enough to know that he could have that in Detroit – a place with unfinished business. In this exercise, we’ll pretend he returns to the team that drafted him back in 2004, but this could apply regardless of what team he chooses to make his comeback.

The second question pertains to the role Verlander would be best suited for upon his return. In what feels like ages ago, I wrote this clearly-ahead-of-its-time piece in a blog for “97.1 The Ticket,” entitled “Three reasons for Justin Verlander as Tigers closer.” Based on the reaction it got at the time, you would’ve thought I was suggesting we cut off Verlander’s right arm and make him throw left-handed. Six years later, it seems as good a time as any to dust this off and examine why it would’ve made sense then, and perhaps make even more sense once he returns to the mound in 2022.

For your viewing pleasure:

Let me be clear: When I wrote this back in 2014, the intent wasn’t to make ‘JV’ closer for the rest of his career. It was a short-term fix to what was a significant problem. That year, Verlander posted his highest ERA (4.54) of any season since 2008. We saw Michigan native John Smoltz make a similar short-lived transition for three seasons about a decade earlier in Atlanta.

Let’s go ahead and look at some of the reasoning now and see how it applies today:

     1.     Verlander feeds off adrenaline

We’ve always known that the bigger the stage, the better Verlander pitched, as evidenced by his domination over teams like the Oakland A’s and New York Yankees during his time in Detroit, and further proven when he took home World Series MVP in 2017 with Houston. In 2022, Verlander will be 39 years old. His adrenaline may far outweigh his ability to throw 120 pitches per start at that point, and closing may give him the best chance at impacting games in high-leverage situations.

     2.     The other options

It’s hard to know who will be sitting in the Tigers closer role in two years, but we all know how hard of a position it’s been to fill since Jose Valverde’s terrific 2011 season. Nothing says ‘exercise the demons’ like giving that opportunity to one of the most storied players in recent franchise history.

     3.     Save the Arm

In the original blog, we said the following:

“Since 2011, no one has thrown more pitches than JV. Pitchers aren’t built to throw as much as Verlander has over the past four seasons, where he’s ranked 1st, 1st, 2nd, and 1st in pitches thrown.”

The following year, Verlander missed the first two months of the season with a core muscle injury. Whether he wanted it or not, his arm took advantage of the break as he returned to lower his ERA by a full run in 2015. The idea of him returning in 2022 and throwing upwards of 100 pitches a game for a clearly-defined “power-pitcher” would defy the laws of time, let alone the human body.

Verlander won’t be able to return the same way Rogers did back in 2006. Rogers made a living off of pinpoint accuracy for years like fellow soft-tossing lefties like Jamie Moyer, Barry Zito, and Ted Lilly. ‘JV’ isn’t that type of pitcher and forcing him back into that role could make his return short-lived but making Verlander a closer could potentially add more successful years to what’s already been a fantastic career.

Smoltz pitched past his 42nd birthday. If Verlander wants to follow suit, and perhaps last even longer, the bullpen would give him his best chance.

Would ‘JV’ be wise to go the route of Smoltz and head to the bullpen? Find Dan on Twitter at @ThatDanHasty!

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