When Verlander signed his five-year contract a year and a half ago to stay in Detroit, he made no secret of his career goal. And he didn't set it lightly.
"I have one goal over my career, just a broad horizon, and that's to make it to the Hall of Fame one day," Verlander said in February 2010. "If you get there, you've done some things right. And I feel if you set individual goals -- let's say next year I want to win 20 games, or I want to strike out this many guys -- I don't think you can do that, because I think you're setting yourself up for failure."
So reaching 20 wins hasn't been a goal for Verlander, but it's a milestone on his way to what he really wants. After three seasons with at least 18 wins, he's making up for coming close so often. Barring injury, it's more a matter of when than if. A date with the reeling Twins in Minnesota at 4:10 p.m. ET on the FOX Saturday Game of the Week broadcast seems like a fine time for win No. 20, for history almost as much as for the standings.
Say what you will about wins as a poor measure of a pitcher's season, and you'd probably be right. Only one American League Cy Young Award winner in the last five years was a 20-game winner. The last two winners didn't even win 17, their dominance on bad teams evident in other statistics.
Verlander can make his Cy Young claim at season's end with no shortage of other stats to convey the feeling fans and hitters have gotten each time he's taken the mound. But a 20-win season still has prestige, a combination of individual and team success -- more so for a club that hasn't had one in 20 years. For someone with a chance to get there with a month to spare, it's a bigger sign, even if Verlander is trying to keep it in the background.
"Do I know where I am? Of course I do," Verlander said. "But I've said time and time again, those things, like total season stats, those things are meant to be looked at at the end of the season, not now."
That said, Verlander appreciates the support.
"Obviously, the community's pretty excited about me and this team for a little while now," Verlander said. "Hopefully, myself and this team continue to excite them, just keep it rolling."
A year and a half after Verlander talked about the Hall of Fame, he's not just on the verge of 20 wins. He's on a path to blow past it, especially if he can win on Saturday.
There's no special category for 20-win seasons by the end of August, but the list of pitchers who have done it stands out. Nobody has done it since Curt Schilling in 2002, when he won 23 games for the then-defending World Series champion D-backs. Just three other pitchers -- Roger Clemens with Toronto in 1997, John Smoltz in '96 and Jack McDowell in '93 -- have done it by the end of August in the past 20 years. Cliff Lee barely missed doing so in 2008, picking up his 20th win on Sept. 1. All but Schilling ended the season with a Cy Young Award.
Go back another year, and the list adds Bob Welch, whose 27-6 season with the 1990 A's stands as a modern standard for the confluence of great pitcher and outstanding team.
All four guys in the last 20 years, coincidentally, won No. 20 in their 27th start of the season. Verlander, if he wins on Saturday, would do it in his 29th start. But considering he won only one of his first four starts and stood at 2-3 at the end of April, his run since then has caught him up to pace.
Already, Verlander is the first pitcher since Frank Viola in 1988 to put together two separate winning streaks of seven consecutive starts, according to STATS, Inc. Viola won his 20th game that year on Aug. 31. If Verlander can pick up an eighth straight win on Saturday, he'd be the first since Lee in 2008 to put together that long of a winning streak this late in a season, including a perfect record through August.
"He's a real good pitcher on a real good roll right now," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.
Leyland has managed two 20-game winners, both during his run of National League East titles in Pittsburgh two decades ago. Doug Drabek won 22 games in 1990, and John Smiley won 20 a year later. Leyland did not have a 20-game winner on his 1997 Marlins team that won the World Series, though he had great pitchers. By any standard, Leyland has called Verlander the best pitcher he has managed.
The Tigers have had a 20-game winner since their glory days of the 1980s, but Bill Gullickson didn't have a year like this in '91. Though he went 20-9 on a Detroit squad that won 84 games, his story was more about his triumphant rise to the Majors again after spending the '88 and '89 seasons in Japan. Though Guillickson led the AL in wins in '91, he wasn't in the top 10 in either ERA or strikeouts.
As it stands, only Angels All-Star Jered Weaver stands between Verlander and the AL pitching triple crown. In terms of wins, only 17-game winner CC Sabathia is within even two victories of the Tigers' ace, in either league.
One of the problems Verlander gave for setting a goal of a 20-win season was what it means for the rest of the season if it's done early.
"Let's say you win 20 and you might have five starts left," Verlander said at his contract signing. "You have to focus on each one. For that reason, I don't set particular goals. I just go out and do everything I can on that given day."
The Tigers would love for him to have this problem.