Built For Big Moments

There’s no way to measure how Justin Verlander would have finished the 2017 season were he still in Detroit. General manager Al Avila and manager Brad Ausmus understood what going to Houston might mean to him. They know Verlander, appreciate and admire that he is a moment guy, that with the Astros position players and fellow alpha personalities like Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel that it would drive him.

Verlander is fearless. He is one of those rare persons who is totally at ease with who he is and lives for the thrill of walking up a mound in the first inning like Mick Jagger taking the stage. Ausmus, an 18-year big league veteran, caught someone like that—Roy Oswalt.

In one of Bill James’ most fascinating essays, he defined “big games,” rated “big game pitchers” from 1950-2013 and listed Oswalt as his number one. Ausmus well remembers going to St. Louis for Game 6 of the 2005 National League Championship Series after the Albert Pujols homer off Brad Lidge in Houston, watching Oswalt walk to the mound in the first inning and just knowing Oswalt would never deliver a pitch that he didn’t believe was perfect.

Verlander is 34 now, the same age as Curt Schilling in 2001. Many have said that had the Phillies not traded Schilling to Arizona, he would not be the Hall of Famer he deserves to be, because he, most of all, was a moment guy. Schilling at 34 won 22 games, pitched 256.2 innings, struck out 293 and walked 37 and won four games in the postseason as the Diamondbacks won their only World Series. From 34 on, Schilling won 10 postseason games, including one in each of the three rounds for the World Series winning 2004 and 2007 Red Sox.

In eight postseason starts with the Tigers from 2012-14, Verlander went 4-2, 1.76 with 64 strikeouts and 10 walks in 56.1 innings. He continued to augment that excellence in 2017 by recording a 2.04 ERA through 17.2 postseason innings for the Astros.

Schilling constantly reinvented himself through preparation, his great delivery and thirst for greatness. In 2007, the Red Sox inflated his velocity postings on the scoreboard, but it didn’t matter that he sometimes threw 85-87 mph, because he found a way to win against the Angels, Indians and Rockies.

So, too, has Verlander constantly reinvented himself. He came up in a Tigers organization that had no interest in Pitch f/x, but when  Ausmus took over, he brought in a couple of grad school analytics students, then Dave Dombrowski began assembling an analytics staff. Verlander discussed with Ausmus that he thought he needed to do something to extend his career, and he became a preparation hound. He learned how to use his velocity so it would last. He went from a fastball/curveball/changeup pitcher to where he was this October, when he mixed in more breaking balls and fewer changeups to go with his fastball up to 98 mph.

Is Verlander yet a Hall of Famer? Pitching usage has morphed the last five years, so it’s hard to compare eras. Verlander finished 2017 with 188 wins, so 230 is easily in sight. He has accumulated more wins above replacement (56.9) than Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax or Early Wynn. He has averaged 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings for his career.

Give credit to Astros owner Jim Crane. He didn’t care about the money or the prospects traded. “After all that the people in Houston have gone through, we had to do whatever we could to be a significant part of their recovery,” Crane said, referring to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey.

He did not linger on the prospects the Astros dealt, which included promising arms like Jorge Guzman (to the Yankees for Brian McCann) and Franklin Perez (part of the Verlander deal). McCann and Verlander were vital parts of the Astros’ playoff runs, and that’s enough. Sometimes tomorrow never comes—but Verlander is the here and now.

Verlander started Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox. He relieved and got eight critical outs in the clinching Game 4. He came back on three days’ rest, threw 124 pitches and beat the Yankees in Game 2 of the ALCS.

When you’re talking about the 21st Century, facing Boston and New York are moment games. What Verlander and Astros co-ace Dallas Keuchel hope is that they eventually lead to a moment when, as Jeff Bagwell always said, they experience the greatest thing in sports: being at the bottom of the pile on the last day of the season.

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