Justin Verlander doesn’t much care for your math. He doesn't care for the statistician's math. And he doesn't care for history's math. He knows 20-game winners are rare these days and, therefore, winning 300 in a career is a milestone most people view as unlikely. (There's even a book about it.) Verlander knows no current pitcher has even 200 wins, and that he only reached 100 a couple weeks ago, and that he'd need 10 seasons at a level he reached for the first time Saturday –- 20 wins -- to hit the big 3-0-0. He knows hard throwers often lose at least one season to injury along the way. He knows he'll have to pitch into his 40s to have a shot.
And still, to those who say it can't be done, he says, pssshh.
"I disagree with that," Verlander says, his eyes wide. "It doesn't make any sense."
Sure, it might make sense to those who actually do the math. A 28-year-old who can throw 100 mph, as Verlander does, can't maintain that velocity for another 10 years. A guy with one 20-win season can't spend another entire decade reaching that mark, not in a five-man rotation that limits him to 33 or so starts a year.
But Verlander's got some numbers of his own:
25. The baseball world is fixated on the 20-game winner, and rightfully so. The Tigers went 20 years without one. Only five teams besides Detroit have had one in the last five years (Yankees, Indians, Diamondbacks, Blue Jays, Red Sox). Two teams -- the Rockies and Rays -- have never had a 20-game winner. So when Verlander became the fastest pitcher to 20 wins since 2002 with a 6-4 win over the Twins, most called it a great season and began to look ahead to the playoffs. But wait: It's not even September. Verlander has six or seven starts left in the regular season. Over his career, he's won 62.5 percent of his post-August starts. Anybody want to bet against him winning a few more? Anyone want to bet against him becoming the first pitcher since 1990 to win 25?
"Why can’t he win 25?" says Tigers starter Brad Penny. "I’d like to see it."
31. That’s how many wins Denny McLain (left) had for the Tigers in 1968. Verlander isn’t getting to that number, but as Tom Gage of the Detroit News points out, Verlander's numbers this season through 210 innings are almost identical to McLain's in 1968 through 210 innings. Verlander has a better opponents' batting average than McLain and fewer hits allowed. A 20-win season is always impressive but Verlander's season to-date compares favorably to the most impressive pitching seasons in the last half-century.
385. No, that’s not a projection of Verlander’s career win total. It’s the amount of weight Verlander can squat six times. That’s not a stunning number for a linebacker, but for a 6-foot-5 pitcher? "I’ve got a long way to go," he jokes. "And I don’t do half-squats." It doesn’t take an orthopedic surgeon to know strong legs protect a pitcher’s arm over the long run. And Verlander, in the words of Tigers strength coach Javair Gillett, is "one of the most powerful athletes we have in the organization." Verlander came into this season in the best shape of his life, he says, and it helped him immediately. On the first day of spring training, he told Penny he’s had some trouble in April -- a 4.75 career ERA -- and he wanted to fix that.
"I didn't know what he meant by having bad Aprils," Penny says. "But he threw 97 his first start in spring training. Not many guys are doing that right now. His intensity was there from Day 1. He’s as locked in as anyone I’ve ever seen." Verlander's not Nolan Ryan, but the combination of intensity, strength and velocity conjure memories of the Ryan Express. Ryan and Verlander both got their 100th wins at age 28. And we all remember how long Ryan pitched -- until age 46, notching 71 wins after he turned 40.
120. Most starting pitchers are yanked after 100 pitches. That's why a lot of decisions -- and wins -- get away over the course of a starter's career. Verlander has a longer leash, sometimes throwing 120-plus in a game. Although fans might fret about burnout and injury, Verlander says not to fear. "I feel better after 125 than after 100," he says. In fact, he says, an extra off-day bothers him. "My numbers on regular rest," Verlander says, "are better than with an extra day." True enough: Verlander is 36-25 on five days rest and 61-27 on four. (His strikouts-to-walks ratio is 3.17 on four days rest, 2.88 on five days and 2.11 on six-plus.) The longer a starter stays in a game, the better his chances of taking the decision, win or loss.
The Tigers' ace goes one step farther: He says part of the reason this has been his best season is that he's throwing more practice sessions between starts when he has extra rest. Instead of throwing one bullpen between games, he throws two on back-to-back days when he has to wait a fifth day to pitch. Asked if he could pitch consistently on three days rest, he doesn’t recoil. "I don’t know," he says. "But I think it’d go well." Doesn’t he feel like hell on the day after throwing 125 pitches -- some of which hit 100 mph? Verlander smiles at this. "I don’t get sore," he says.
So does he want a few more starts per season? No, he says that wouldn’t be fair to other pitchers. And although he always tells manager Jim Leyland he feels fine during and after starts, he’s never considered asking the skipper for a bigger workload because, "He doesn’t care."
Or, more accurately, maybe Leyland cares too much. The manager has been cautious with his star throughout his career, and it's worked. "You can’t make a senior out of a freshman," Leyland says. "You have to be patient." But the Tigers lost out on the playoffs two years ago by a single game, and they haven't been back since. If you're Jim Leyland, wouldn't you try to sneak in an extra start or two for your Cy Young candidate over the course of a season?
4. Verlander's heat is eye-popping, but he has three pitches besides his fastball to get batters out, a curve, slider and changeup – all potentially deadly. "He’s got all four pitches," says catcher Victor Martinez. "He can throw any pitch at any time." And although the 100 mph gas sets up the other pitches, Verlander seems to be one of those resourceful pitchers who could lose a few mph off his heater as he gets older and still thrive. "Even when he doesn't have his A game," says teammate Ryan Raburn, "he’s still better than pretty much everyone else."
Does it all add up to 300? Verlander is the only pitcher under age 30 with 100 or more wins. Only two thirtysomethings -- Roy Halladay (184 wins; age 34) and CC Sabathia (174 wins; age 30) -- appear to have a chance. Among pitchers younger than Verlander, only Felix Hernandez (83 wins; age 25) can be added to the discussion. The 300 Club is 23 pitchers strong, yet only Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson got there in the era of five-man rotations. All pitched well into their 40s.
Doubters will persist. But unlike the naysayers, Verlander has the ultimate ammo for his argument.
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