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Is Verlander on a Hall of Fame Path?

During last postseason, I took a look at Roy Halladay and his credentials in terms of possibly become a Hall of Famer when his career is said and done. I really enjoyed writing that article. I’m a fan of the Royals, but I’m also a fan of baseball in general, so every so often I like to get away from the Royals as the main focus and look around at the rest of the baseball world. I read an interesting tweet by Jon Morosi referencing Justin Verlander’s Hall of Fame chances. He said that he believes Verlander gets in if he keeps up his wins and no-hitters pace through his age 38 season or so and collects one or two Cy Youngs. It got me thinking about the odds of Verlander becoming a Hall of Fame pitcher. I can tell you one thing before I get any deeper. After 2008, anybody talking about Verlander as a HOFer would have gotten laughed out of the room.

Justin Verlander was drafted as the number two overall pick of the Detroit Tigers in the 2004 amateur draft. That was the year the Padres took Matt Bush with the first overall pick. It was also one of the last seasons (maybe the last, I can’t recall) where the leagues alternated the number one overall pick. That meant that the Tigers, who had lost 119 games the season prior did not actually have the first pick in the draft. I assume they would have taken Verlander either way because the Padres were known to have been afraid of his contract demands, but it’s hard to say for certain because it didn’t happen that way. Either way, the Tigers took a pitcher who could light up a radar gun and had a pretty good feel for pitching and who could make it to the big leagues quickly. He was actually in the Majors in 2005, but only for a cup of coffee in July before he was returned to the minors.

In 2006, Verlander made the Tigers out of spring training and was one of their best starters during their surprising run to the World Series. He went 17-9 that year with a 3.63 ERA. He threw just 186 innings which I presume is because the Tigers wanted to limit his innings somewhat in order to keep his arm intact. He didn’t strike as many out as you would have hoped from someone who threw so hard, but he was very effective. He wasn’t great in the postseason, but a lot of that probably had to do with some fatigue of his first full season in the big leagues. I remember there being some worry nationally that all the extra innings might cause him problems in 2007, but I can’t verify that one way or another.

It definitely did not end up hurting him then, though, as he went 18-6 with a 3.66 ERA and went over the 200 inning mark for the first time in his career. His strikeout rate rose to over eight per nine innings and his walk rate remained roughly the same. He got harder to hit, allowing less baserunners per inning than in his rookie year and was generally considered one of the better pitchers in the American League, and he was only 24 years old. The difference between Verlander then and Verlander now is that he’d sprinkle in the stinker start a little more often. Every so often he’d give up five or six runs and walk five or six while only striking out four or five. That’s part of the maturation process of a young pitcher, though.

Trouble began for Verlander in 2008 when he went 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA. He again topped 200 innings, but his strikeout rates fell and his walk rate rose. He showed flashes of brilliance throughout that season, but was just not anywhere near as good as he had been. There was some talk around baseball that he might have been hurt, but my guess is that the extra workload from the previous two seasons that he had never before encountered caught up with him. I don’t have anything to back that up other than just assumption, but it seems like a fairly safe bet to me. I don’t remember what was being said about Verlander in 2008 by the people who are paid to make judgments, but I remember not being too scared when the Royals had to face him though he still pitched pretty well against them that year. I had the thought that he was settling into being a good pitcher who had flashes of brilliance and periods of being just awful.

Then 2009 started and Verlander got absolutely rocked on Opening Day, giving up eight runs to the Blue Jays in 3.2 innings. I wasn’t in Detroit, but I can only imagine the thoughts that were going through their fans’ heads as they might have been beginning to think that their ace was a flash in the pan. He wasn’t much better through his fourth start, but after that things began to click. While Verlander slowed down a little at the end of the season, his final 31 starts meant a 19-7 record for him with a 2.92 ERA in 219 innings. In those 219 innings, he struck out 244 and walked 54. For the season, he struck out 269 batters and led the league. In another season, he might have gotten much more Cy Young consideration, but 2009 was the year Zack Greinke had a 2.16 ERA and struck out 242 batters of his own. Verlander wouldn’t have won the award over Felix Hernandez had Greinke not been around, but you would have heard his name mentioned more.

Last year was pretty similar to his 2009 campaign. He didn’t strike out quite as many, only notching 219 strikeouts in 224.1 innings. He won 18 games and had an ERA of 3.37. He only allowed 190 hits in those innings, though, and was beginning to get more and more unhittable. This season, Verlander has turned it on more and more and is entering himself into the conversation as one of the best pitchers in baseball. He was in it before, but sort of on the outskirts. He was certainly in the conversation as one of the most dominant pitchers, but now he is part of the conversation as the best. On any given day, it appears that Verlander is capable of pitching a no-hitter. On May 7 he pitched his second career no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays and then went out in his very next outing and took a no-hitter into the sixth against our own Royals. And if you remember that game, it looked like he was going to throw a second consecutive one for sure. On Tuesday, Verlander pitched 7.1 no-hit innings before allowing a single to Orlando Cabrera, but he was bidding to join a select few in the “more than two no-hitters” club. My guess is he’ll get there eventually.

So the question is, with all this dominance, is Justin Verlander on a Hall of Fame path? My first guess is yes. He’s in the prime of his career, and seems to be figuring out how to pitch while still dominating. He’s gone through a maturation process in the last couple of years that is absolutely terrifying as an American League Central opponent. Even though pitcher wins are a statistic that people understand isn’t quite as important as it once was, it is still the benchmark that will be used for Hall of Fame pitchers. Right now, Verlander is sitting at 91 wins. Let’s say he gets 9 more to make a simplistic 100 total at the end of this season. I think he has the chance to average 18 wins per year for the next four years. He has a good offense behind him and is pitching in a pitcher’s park. So let’s go ahead and add those 72 wins to his total for 172 through his age 32 season. That’s pretty impressive.

The wins barometer for the Hall of Fame should be decreasing any day from 300 being automatic entry to 250-275 being almost automatic entry, so he really only needs another 78 wins beyond 2015. I think he can easily average 15 a year for his next four as he has a body that doesn’t appear likely to break down. From there, he just needs 18 more victories in some way. I have a feeling that Verlander is the type of pitcher who could go until he’s 42 or 43, but let’s assume he pitches until he’s 40 just for the sake of this argument. By getting to 232 by his 36th birthday, he has four years to record 18 victories. This is all just speculation, but would it surprise anybody if Verlander won an average of 12 games per year between his 36th and 40th birthday? It wouldn’t surprise me. Tack on those 48 victories and you’ve got a pitcher with 280 wins in his career. If he’s still pitching that effectively, he’d probably stick around like Randy Johnson did to win his 300th game and, voila, you have a Hall of Famer.

Now I know that adding these numbers up is a pure guessing game, but of all the pitchers in baseball, Verlander is one of the few I wouldn’t bet against staying consistent and staying good for a long time. He has a big ballpark to pitch in, so if his fastball loses some of its oomph, there will be a spacious outfield to help make up for it. The Tigers are a team willing to spend money, so presumably the lineup around him will continue to be productive and score him runs. Plus, if he keeps up this pitching, he’s bound to add a Cy Young or two to his trophy case. I think he just needs a signature postseason moment or two to ice his candidacy and the fans from Detroit can get excited about heading to Cooperstown in 2028.

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