I don't know which answer Justin Verlander inspired from you in years past, but I feel fairly certain the affirmatives are winning out in a landslide in 2011.
It's not often, after all, that a guy takes the mound every fifth day legitimately looking like a no-hitter on the horizon. Verlander is 28 years old and he's already tossed two no-nos -- a feat accomplished by just a dozen other men in baseball history. Not since Nolan Ryan was a pitcher, not a president, have we had a better bet to flirt with history as a matter of routine.
And as attractive as the possibility of near-perfection is, Verlander, who takes the mound Thursday afternoon against the Mets at Comerica Park, offers plenty to appreciate on even his ordinary days.
Over his past four starts, Verlander has allowed two runs in 34 innings, striking out 41 and walking just three. In a 10-start stretch dating back to his May 7 no-hitter in Toronto, he's 8-0 with a 1.56 ERA, a .155 batting average against, 10 walks and 73 strikeouts in 80 2/3 innings.
"He's a horse. He's getting better by the day. It's a pretty nice horse to be sending out there every five days."
-- Tigers manager|
For the season, Verlander is 10-3 with a 2.38 ERA, 124 strikeouts and 128 2/3 innings pitched in 17 starts. He's walked just 27 and allowed just 81 hits, giving him a 0.839 WHIP that, if it stays around there, would be far and away the best of his career. Oh, and as for that adjusted ERA mentioned earlier? Verlander's is 158, which would also be a career best.
This is not just another no-hitter but an American League Cy Young Award winner waiting to happen. More important, though, Verlander has been the steady hand that's allowed the Tigers to endure an inconsistent start and remain in contention in the AL Central. And if they are able to hold firm to their current top spot, a dominant ace like Verlander is the kind of weapon you can ride to October glory.
"He's a horse," manager Jim Leyland said. "He's getting better by the day. It's a pretty nice horse to be sending out there every five days."
What's most telling about Verlander's season to date is the extent to which Leyland has been able to ride him. For what it's worth (and it's worth a lot to the Tigers), these are Verlander's innings per start since his first full season in 2006:
So it's a large leap in length that Verlander has provided this year.
"It's definitely something that will help me," he said. "I think that comes with maturity, getting some quicker outs, lasting deeper. The next step I want is to be that guy that can go out and work 200-250 innings every year."
Verlander put an increased attention to detail in his Spring Training routine this year, hoping to thwart a career track record of poor Aprils.
"I basically treated spring like the regular season," he said. "In games, I was very results-oriented. Even my bullpens, I treated them very serious."
Let's not be mistaken. From the time he arrived to the bigs, Verlander has been known to have some of the best pure stuff in the game. And if you had the ability to remove his 2008 season (11-17, 4.84 ERA) from the slate, you could certainly make the case that he's been one of the game's more consistently dominant arms in recent years.
But what we're seeing in 2011 is a Verlander at a decidedly different level, and the primary difference might be his renewed focus from pitch to pitch.
"In the past," an AL scout said, "it seemed to come so easy to him that he would be there toying with hitters, trying different things. If he threw a curveball and didn't like the way it came out of his hand, 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 ... the kind of thing guys do in bullpens, not games."
This year, Verlander has been in attack mode, and he's used his four-pitch repertoire to greater effect. His improved command across the board has allowed him to show more comfort in his secondary stuff.
According to Fangraphs.com, he's throwing his fastball, which averages 95.2 mph, 55.5 percent of the time -- the lowest such mark of his career. Last year, it was at 58.6 percent, but just two years ago, he was throwing it 67.9 percent of the time. That shows you just how varied Verlander's selection has become. His use of his changeup (17.5 percent) and slider (7.1 percent) is well ahead of where it was in recent years.
The scout compared the Verlander of '11 to the Zack Greinke of '09.
"We all saw what [Greinke] was capable of when he dialed it in for one full season and walked away with a Cy Young," the scout said. "Now, the question surrounding Verlander, for me, is whether or not he can tap into this year in and year out the way the Roy Halladays of the world have."
That's a question Verlander will have to answer in the future. For now, he is certainly one of baseball's must-see acts in the present.