Baseball 92: Justin Verlander

Beginnings always fascinate me. Let's go back, if we can, to one spring day in 2001. Justin Verlander and his father, Richard, sat at their home in Goochland, Va., and waited for the phone to ring. It was amateur draft day. And they expected Justin to go somewhere between the eighth and 12th round -- that's what Baseball America had predicted. They couldn't help but hope for something even a bit higher.

All the scouts knew about Verlander; he was someone they had been following for a long time. There was a legend about him, one that Richard told all the time. Father and son were at the lake, goofing around as fathers and sons do. Justin was probably 10 at the time. Richard picked up a rock and said, "Let's see how far we can throw."

Richard threw his rock as far as he could, and it sailed about halfway across the lake.

"Not bad," Richard said.

Justin then threw his rock all the way across the lake.

"My jaw dropped," Richard told reporters. There were always reporters hanging around. Justin Verlander was one of those charmed kids; he had followed the path of young sports legends. In Little League, he threw so hard and was so wild that multiple kids on opposing teams actually quit baseball rather than face him. You hear about stuff like that, but it really happened with the young Justin.

He found an even more dangerous fastball when he was 14. A coach named Wayne Spencer goaded him into it.

"Hey Sally," Spencer yelled at Verlander as he crouched behind the plate, "I've seen better arms on a chair."

And whether it was the casual sexism, the comparison to basic furniture or the pure lameness of the joke, Verlander gritted his teeth and found something more. That was the first time he threw 80 mph. Soon it was 85. Then it was 90. Then it was 93.

"I could just throw the crap out of the ball," Justin said.

And scouts knew that there was more there. Verlander was a rail-thin 6-foot-4, and he had 35-inch arms, which seemed to mean something to the unnamed scouts quoted in stories, and in his senior year in high school, he allowed just four runs and struck out two per inning in 142 innings pitched.

"He's a lot like Jack McDowell," one scout said, a pretty sweet comparison. McDowell went to Stanford and became the fifth pick in the draft. He was a three-time All-Star and won a Cy Young award.

With all that, you will wonder, why was Verlander projected to go somewhere in the eighth to 12th round? Were there really 250 to 350 players with more potential than a growing 6-foot-4 kid with a 93-mph fastball and competitive rage? Well, scouting is a complicated business. At one point during his senior year, Verlander's velocity dropped briefly. Richard had told everyone that it was nothing more than a brief illness, but scouts weren't sure. Velocity drops can be bad. Maybe he was hurt. Maybe he had topped out.

Also, there were the control issues. Even after driving several Goochland baseball prospects out of the game, Verlander had not quite learned how to control his stuff. You never know about those big, wild kids.

The Verlanders prepared for this. Justin committed to Old Dominion, which was just a couple of hours away off I-64. Richard told scouts that unless they took Justin in the top three rounds, he would go to college ... but, you know, that's what people say. Everyone in baseball knows the deal. Make a serious offer and the Verlanders would listen. All the quotes in the paper leading up to the draft suggested that Justin wanted to play pro ball.

So we go back to that day in 2001, father and son waiting for the call.

The top three rounds passed. Justin wasn't taken. Then the next few rounds went by, still no call. Finally, it got down to the eighth round, ninth round, 10th round, the rounds where he had been projected to go. Silence.

And then the "what the heck" rounds passed, one after another, the 17th round, the 28th round, the 39th round, these are rounds where teams are just buying lottery tickets -- Wes McCrotty and Mark Comolli, Cesar Montes De Oca and Matthew Sibigtroth and Justin Sassanella.

In all, 1,469 players were selected in the 2001 draft. A couple of teams did not even take a player in the last 10 rounds because they had run out of ideas.

Justin Verlander was not drafted at all.

* * *

Sports are filled with stories of great athletes who were inspired by the pain of being told that they weren't good enough. The most famous of these is probably Michael Jordan, who as a sophomore in high school (as the story goes) was cut from the varsity basketball team.

Well, we should tell that story: Jordan was not cut -- he just didn't make the varsity. He played junior varsity like sophomores usually do. Only one sophomore made Pop Herring's Laney High varsity team that year, a player named Harvest Leroy Smith, who played at UNC Charlotte when I was there. Seemed like a nice guy. Smith made the high school varsity because he was 6-foot-7 (Jordan then was less than 6 feet tall), and he was a good player. Smith went on the play professional basketball in various leagues, and then worked in television.

But the point of the story is not if Jordan was technically cut, or simply overlooked; he never let go of the slight. Never. At his Hall of Fame speech -- HIS BLEEPING HALL OF FAME SPEECH -- he made sure that Smith was in the crowd.

[caption id="attachment_23329" align="aligncenter" width="443"] Passed over in the 2001 draft, Verlander went second overall three years later.[/caption]

"Then there's Leroy Smith," Jordan told the crowd on (remember) what was supposed to be the day that he was overwhelmed by the honor of being inducted in the Hall. "I got cut, he made the team -- on the varsity team -- and he's here tonight. He's still the same 6-foot-7 guy, he's not any bigger, probably his game is about the same. But he started the whole process with me because when he made the team, and I didn't, I wanted to prove not just to Leroy Smith, not just to myself, but to the coach that picked Leroy over me, I wanted to make sure you understood -- you made a mistake, dude."

Jordan got criticized for this, got criticized for not mentioning Pop Herring's name (his old coach's life had fallen apart), got criticized for calling out an old friend with the guy sitting in the crowd as a prop, but the point here is that Michael Jordan couldn't be anyone else. THAT was Michael Jordan stripped to his essence. In that speech, he was showing us the man behind the Nike commercials and Space Jam movie. Being told "you're not good enough" as a sophomore in high school had been the rocket fuel that launched Jordan into space. When Buzz Peterson was named North Carolina high school player of the year instead of him (something else that Jordan mentioned during his speech), that launched Jordan to Mars. When he was taken third in the NBA draft, that launched Jordan into another galaxy.

And it went on, the search for more rocket fuel. When NBA stars froze him out of the All-Star Game ... when people said Jordan was just a scorer and couldn't lead a team to a championship ... when players mouthed off in the paper about how they could guard Jordan ... when people told him he couldn't play baseball and then insulted those efforts and told him he couldn't return to basketball ... he was always looking for more fury, searching for slights that weren't even there, trying to find the next rung on the rage ladder so he could climb just a little bit higher.

Many great and good athletes are like that. Tom Brady is like that -- he STILL seems to cling to the pain of being a sixth-round pick in the draft. I mean, come on, it's not like he was imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit. The guy was drafted by an NFL team a few rounds later than he expected. But that raw power of feeling slighted, of trying to prove everyone wrong, is tantalizing and irresistible and, for some people, food. Melvin Stewart admits that after he won the gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, when he was up on the medal stand, he wanted to think good thoughts but instead ran through in his mind all those people who told him he couldn't do it.

"Nobody was going to believe in us," said Kansas' Udoka Azubuike after the Jayhawks basketball team -- ranked No. 10 in the country, by the way -- beat West Virginia.

"Nobody believed in us, except for us, and that's all that mattered," the Mississippi State social medial account tweeted after a 9-4 season that ended with a win over Louisville in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

"No one believed in us, and I hope they don't still," Mets first baseman Ike Davis said in May of 2012, when the Mets moved to five games over .500 and secured third place in the National League East (they ended up 74-88).

"Nobody believed in us," said Chris Long after the Eagles won the Super Bowl. "I know a lot of people are going say, 'You're the number one seed, you can't be the underdog.' Turn on the TV! You know, listen to the people, what they are talking about. People didn't believe in us when we were up 10."

We know all this -- Bill Simmons has written the "No one believed in us" thing plenty. But one thing we don't often talk about is that not everyone responds powerfully to being told (or to hearing) that they're not good enough. I would bet, in fact, that most people respond the opposite way to Jordan or Brady or Chris Long. That is to say, most people quit. Most people move on to other things. Most people accept their fate, their limitations, step back against long odds. I did. When I was told that I was too small to play major league baseball, I believed it. When I was told that I didn't have the talent to make it as a professional tennis player, I believed that too.

Even as a writer, I can't say that I was motivated by criticism, not in that way. I was motivated in the petrified, insecure, "Oh geez, they're probably right, I don't have any talent for this, I better work like three times harder because I don't have any other plans to make a living," sort of way. Maybe that's the same thing. I don't know.

But the furious hunger to prove people wrong, to make it despite what others say, I think that's a special trait that only some people have.

As it turned out Justin Verlander had it in bulk.

* * *

A few months after the 2001 draft, a reporter interviewed Richard Verlander. By that time, Justin had started pitching for Old Dominion. He had put on 15 pounds of muscle. The fastball was up to 95 mph. Verlander was commanding a breaking ball too. The Old Dominion baseball coach couldn't believe his dumb luck.

"I bet some of those teams are kicking themselves now," Richard said of those clubs that had passed on Justin in the draft.

One year later, at the end of his sophomore season, Verlander struck out 17 in a game against James Madison. His fastball was clocked at 98. "I think," one scout said after the game, "I may have just seen the first pick in the 2004 draft."

Verlander was actually the second pick in the draft, after the lamentable Matt Bush. He went to Lakeland in high Class A, made 13 starts, blew hitters away, then he went to Class AA for seven starts and allowed a total of one run, and then he went up to the Tigers. Baseball America ranked him the eighth-best prospect in baseball ("Stuff-wise, Verlander has no weaknesses," they wrote), and he started the year in Detroit.

On May 22, 2006, five years after not getting drafted, Justin Verlander -- now 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, his fastball in triple digits -- started against the Kansas City Royals. He retired the first 10 he faced. He threw a five-hit shutout, with three of the hits coming in the final two innings and his Tigers up 8-0.

In the ninth inning, he struck out Doug Mientkiewicz looking on a pitch so absurd and unhittable that Ol' Eye Chart was still murmuring about it in the clubhouse afterward. Mientkiewicz was a fine player who prided himself on two things. He played the game the right way. And you couldn't strike him out.

"Well, I guess that's why he was the first pick in the draft," Mientkiewicz finally said.

He was told that Verlander actually was not the first pick in the draft. His eyes bulged.

"Who was picked ahead of him???" he asked incredulously. "And you BETTER say Pujols."

The world comes at you fast.

* * *

In the end, Justin Verlander's greatness as a player will be defined by that hunger to prove everyone wrong. He was a truly dominant pitcher in 2011 and 2012, he won the Cy Young and MVP the first of those years, probably should have won the Cy Young the second (he lost to David Price by a razor-thin four points). And I certainly don't mean to downplay his awesomeness then.

But in many ways, he was only fulfilling his destiny. Verlander had impossibly great stuff. He could throw 100 mph in the ninth inning of games. He had a back-breaking curveball, an absurd changeup and, when he felt like throwing it, a wipeout slider. He had a first-place team around him. He had fought through some down times (he was a below average pitcher in 2008 at age 25, when he should have been at his peak) and had learned how to succeed, and those years were him at his peak, when it was all working, when he was in the zone.

[caption id="attachment_23330" align="aligncenter" width="407"] The guy's been pretty lucky in love, too.[/caption]

But he fell off in 2013. He was still good, still an All-Star, but he was not invincible like he had been. His walks went up. He was more hittable. In 2014, at age 31, he fell off the map. He was not healthy but, more than that, he just wasn't the same. He had averaged nine strikeouts per nine innings for the previous six seasons -- that dropped to 6.9 strikeouts per nine. He gave up the most runs in the American League.

Then in 2015, at age 32, he was truly hurt; he came back in mid June, he was absolutely atrocious for two months -- the Tigers lost eight of the nine games he started -- and while he did pitch very well the last two months or so, you wouldn't have found many buyers of the "Justin Verlander will be great again" stock.

At that point -- age 32 -- Verlander was 157-97 with a 3.52 ERA, a 121 ERA+, and he had won Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP, he had made six All-Star Games... it was a very nice career. But lots of guys had nice careers at age 32. Dwight Gooden had similar numbers. Vida Blue had similar numbers. Frank Viola ... Mark Langston ... David Cone ... Tim Hudson ... Frank Tanana ... Kevin Appier ... Billy Pierce ... all of these guys had roughly the same number of wins, roughly the same WAR, roughly the same accomplishments as Verlander. He was a terrific pitcher like they were terrific pitchers.

If you want a more current example, think Felix Hernandez.

King Felix was a dominant pitcher, every bit on the level of Verlander. And then it stopped. And now, he seems entirely done as a great or even good pitcher, and he's 32 years old, and what will be his legacy? He's 168-128 with a 120 ERA+ and 51 WAR. That's not going to get him to the Hall of Fame, not even close. He needs a second life.

Verlander needed a second life.

And he made a second life. That's what makes him one of the 100 greatest players in major league history. He did not let the swarm of doubters -- and there were doubters everywhere -- demoralize, unnerve or break him.

"People suck," he told Brandon Sneed at Bleacher Report.

Quite the opposite. Verlander used them. For the second time in his life, he used the unrestrained power of doubt (and the love of Kate Upton) to spur him to become as good as he had been, to become better than he had been. At age 33, he finished second in the Cy Young voting, in another staggeringly close race (he actually had six more first-place votes than winner Rick Porcello). At age 34, he was pitching fine, when he was traded to Houston, and he became legendary again. He was the MVP of the American League Championship Series, and the one guy on earth nobody wanted to face.

Then this year, he will probably finish second again in the Cy Young (this time to Chris Sale ... but that's just a prediction). He was terrific, leading the league in starts, strikeouts, WHIP and, for the first time in his career, strikeout-to-walk ratio. It's like he has ascended to the top of the mountain. I think if he retires NOW, he will go to the Hall of Fame. That doesn't really excuse those teams though, does it? I mean, not ONE of you thought to draft this guy?