Somehow, Verlander finds room to improve
When his season for the ages was over -- a season that resulted in the rare Cy Young and MVP value meal -- Justin Verlander had a wrap-up conversation with Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones, and the two came to this conclusion:"We said he was becoming a pitcher," Jones said with a smile. "He's not a pitcher yet; he's becoming a pitcher." God help the opposition when he finally figures it all out. Clearly, Verlander doesn't have much room to grow on his 2011 output. To even come within a whiff of the feat would be plenty impressive. But that's not to say that the evolution of one of the game's greatest arms is complete. While Verlander is always in search of his next win, his greater quest is an internal one. "I'm never complacent," he said. "I'm always striving to become better." It is this attitude that has propelled Verlander to one of the Majors' most amazing ongoing streaks: In 52 consecutive starts, dating back to Aug. 22, 2010 (and not counting the postseason), Verlander has worked a minimum of six innings. He'll go for No. 53 on Tuesday at Fenway Park. This is throwback-type stuff, for the last guy to post such a streak at least this long was Steve Carlton, who worked six-plus in 69 straight starts between 1979 and '82. Only three other players, according to STATS LLC, have done it in the last 80 years -- Bob Gibson (who did it three separate times, maxing out with a 78-game streak between 1967 and '70), Catfish Hunter and Dazzy Vance. Hall of Famers, all. And when you consider the endurance and aptitude, the wiliness and resolve, necessary to amass such a stretch in this era of pitch counts and increased video and scouting scrutiny, it's pretty special stuff. "Incredible," as Jones said. Surely, the awards, acclaim and the two career no-hitters (as well as the near-no-no earlier this month against the Pirates) have cemented the 29-year-old Verlander's status as one of the best pitchers of his generation.
Most consecutive starts of six-plus innings*
Steady as he goes
But beyond the more touted triumphs is the simple satisfaction that -- for nearly two years now -- Verlander has done everything within the realm of reason to give the Tigers a chance to win a ballgame every fifth day. Only nine times during his 52-start streak has he failed to produce a quality start (three earned runs allowed or fewer in at least six innings)."I guess you could say it's rewarding for all the hard work I've put in," Verlander said. "But that's what you want. You want to be able to give your bullpen a little rest and be a workhorse. I guess that's just a testament to doing that." Verlander has become more of a workhorse on an almost annual basis. His innings-per-outing from his rookie year in 2006 to the current season read as follows: 6.20, 6.30, 6.09, 6.86, 6.80, 7.38, 7.53. He's achieved this ascension by becoming more efficient. I remember a conversation I had with a scout last summer who noted that a young Verlander, so blessed with superior stuff, liked to toy with hitters, sometimes to his detriment. "If he threw a curveball and didn't like the way it came out of his hand," the scout said, "it seemed like he'd throw another one to get it right, rather than thinking about the fact that a hitter was in the box." What we've seen these last two years is a firmer focus from batter to batter, inning to inning, start to start. And what's amazing about Verlander is how he's able to corral his villainous velocity early in his outings so that he still has another gear to go to late. He is routinely hitting 97 mph with his fastball in the eighth inning, his highest velocity average of any inning, according to BrooksBaseball.net. "I've been able to do that as long as I can remember," Verlander said with a shrug. "I don't know why." In his last start against the Indians, Verlander's fastball was clocked at 102 mph in the eighth. It was as dominant an inning as you'll ever see, and Jim Leyland said afterward that it was the best inning he'd ever seen pitched. "He was throwing as hard as any closer in the league," Tribe manager Manny Acta said. "Amazing." When it was suggested to Verlander that he seems to have a closer's mentality when he gets deep into games, directly challenging the opposition with the hard heat, daring them to catch up to it, he agreed. "I can see that," he said. "I think my mentality definitely changes as the game goes on." And his hunger to go deep into games has definitely evolved over time, to the point where not even his dream season of 2011 is deemed sufficient success. "He's intense," Jones said. "He's a great competitor. He wants to be the best at everything he does." Right now, there's nobody doing it better than Justin Verlander.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.