On a sunny September afternoon in Detroit, Justin Verlander returned to the mound where his Hall of Fame career began. He was 22 years old when he arrived, soon to win AL Rookie of the Year and pitch the Tigers back into October. He’s 39 now and throwing the ball better than ever for the Astros.
The seats used to be full when Verlander took the mound at Comerica Park. The air would eventually turn crisp. They were empty on Tuesday as he underwent a pregame workout in his recovery from a calf injury; he hopes to return this weekend. If he finishes strong, Verlander will win the third Cy Young award of his career – and his second in five seasons with Houston.
“It is being weird back here,” Verlander said later in the visitor’s clubhouse of his old home. “Spent so much time here. Even just driving through and seeing all the changes in the city, it’s a little weird to be back, but it feels nice.”
Last offseason, there were murmurs of a reunion. Verlander was a free agent for the first time in his career and the Tigers were re-establishing themselves under A.J. Hinch, Verlander’s former manager in Houston. Verlander has talked about the appeal of finishing his career in Detroit, whenever that might be, and reiterated Tuesday that he’s “always open to the idea.”
“It was not explored last offseason, the Tigers never really reached out,” he said. “I felt like they understood that they really weren’t in a place for me yet. Maybe, I don’t know. I never asked, but it never really came up.”
In the end, the timing wasn’t quite right. Not for Verlander, who was set on signing with a championship contender, and not for the Tigers, who weren't prepared to gamble on a veteran coming off Tommy John. Verlander re-upped with the Astros on a two-year, $50 million deal, money well spent on a pitcher who leads the majors with a 1.84 ERA and touts a record of 16-3.
“Still pitching at a high level, I want to be able to help a team win a championship,” Verlander said. “That’s what we play for, so I want to be on good ballclubs. It’s also a lot more fun playing on good teams. When you work yourself into a situation where you work hard your whole career, hopefully when you’re a free agent you have multiple suitors and good suitors. That’s where you want to be.”
Looking for an established starter to lead their young rotation, the Tigers sunk $77 million into Eduardo Rodriguez. It backfired when Rodriguez struggled out of the gate and then lost nearly three months to injuries and a long stint on the restricted list, one of many letdowns in a disastrous season for the Tigers that led to the firing of GM Al Avila. It was Avila who initiated the club’s rebuild by dealing Verlander to the Astros in 2017 for three prospects who haven’t panned out in Detroit.
The Tigers have the second most losses in baseball since Verlander’s departure. (Verlander has the fifth most wins, even while missing almost two full seasons due to Tommy John.) And they don’t have an especially bright future to show for it. Asked about the state of the franchise that once drafted him second overall, Verlander said, “It’s a tough question.”
“I don’t really inundate myself with the day-to-day stuff that’s going on here,” he said. “I would need to know more information and be over there to have a better understanding. From afar, last year it looked like things were turning around a bit and then obviously disappointing this year. I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t know where they go from here. Obviously, I wish them the best.”
When Verlander left the Tigers, he was a borderline Hall of Famer. The biggest hole in his resume was a World Series ring. He filled it within months of joining the Astros, winning the ALCS MVP in the process. And then he just kept on shoving. He added another Cy Young in 2019, after coming a few votes shy in 2018. Over the last five seasons, Verlander ranks second in the majors in ERA (2.37) and batting average against (.184) and first in WHIP (0.85). The second act of his career has arguably been better than the first.
Which begs the question: when Verlander gets the call, is he entering the Hall of Fame as a Tiger or an Astro? Which cap will he be wearing on his plaque?
“I try not to think about it, quite honestly,” he said, having clearly thought about it in the past. Then he rubbed his temple and thought about it some more.
“I have a bit of time left on my clock and I think that is going to determine a lot of things,” he said. “I’ve had a good run here in Houston. I don’t know if I’ll still be here in the coming years. If I played until 45, that’s six more years. Might be less, might be more, who knows, but that’s still a significant chunk of my career.
“So it’s not a very fair question at this point in time. But I know Detroit will always have a special place in my heart and in my career and what that looks like when I retire, I just can’t answer that right now. Don’t have all the information.”
The information we do have is this:
Over 13 seasons with the Tigers, Verlander won 183 games. He had a 3.49 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 3.1 K/BB ratio. He won one AL Cy Young and one AL MVP, the same season he claimed the AL Triple Crown. He had four more top-five Cy Young finishes and one more top-10 MVP finish. He made six All-Star Games.
Over five seasons with the Astros, Verlander has won 59 games. He has a 2.30 ERA, 0.839 WHIP and 7.2 K/BB ratio. He’s won one AL Cy Young. He has one more top-five Cy Young finish and one top-10 MVP finish. He’s made three All-Star Games.
Verlander has said he’d like to pitch until the age of 45, health willing. If he does so with the Astros and wins another Cy Young (or two), another World Series (or two) and becomes the first MLB pitcher since Randy Johnson (and quite possibly the last ever) to reach 300 wins – he’s got 58 to go – you can see where this is trending. Detroit is where Verlander’s Hall of Fame career was born. Houston is where it may be cemented.
But that’s a conversation for the future. For now, Verlander is focused on prolonging his improbable peak, a 39-year-old still pitching like he’s 22.
“I don’t really know what the (retirement age) is or have a goal per se. It’s just, head down, keep working and do everything I can to maintain my body and success for as long as I can. However long that takes me, however long that journey is, when all is said and done, there will be no stone left unturned to help me get to that point.
“And I’ll be happy to ride off into the sunset knowing that I gave the game everything I possibly could.”
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