Verlander and Nicklaus

Justin Verlander made the Hall of Fame on Sunday.

I know that this statement will make many of you recoil in fury. I know many of you are already screaming, “Are you out of your mind? Verlander was already a dead lock Hall of Famer before he threw that no-hitter, and it was actually his third no-hitter smart guy, and did you know that he has led the league in strikeouts like a whole bunch of times, and you’re a moron and …”

Go ahead, get it out of your system. I’ll wait.

Now, let’s see if I can explain this. Yes, Verlander was going to be elected to the Hall of Fame whether or not he threw Sunday’s 100 Game Score, 14-strikeout, one-walk-away-from-perfect no hitter against Toronto. He was going to be elected first ballot. The no-hitter had no impact on his actual Hall of Fame destiny.

But he actually MADE the the Hall of Fame on Sunday.

He made it by pulling off what I shall now call a “Nicklaus.”

As you undoubtedly know, Jack Nicklaus won the Masters in 1986 at age 46. It is considered one of the greatest moments in golf history — much like Tiger’s win at Augusta this year is considered one of the greatest moments in golf history — for one reason: Nicklaus was ALREADY the greatest player in golf history when it happened.

If another 46-year-old player — say Joey Sindelar or Fred Funk or someone like that — had won the Masters the way Nicklaus did in 1986, it would be long forgotten.

But it wasn’t another player. It was Nicklaus. And so his victory represented more. It perfectly encapsulated his extraordinary career. It rattled and animated the memories of Jack through the years — the young Jack daring to challenge Arnold Palmer, the swashbuckling Jack taking off his sweater so he could launch a drive into orbit, the gracious Jack putting his arm around Tom Watson after losing the Duel in the Sun …

All of it came together on that Sunday, long after we had any right to hope that Nicklaus could still be Nicklaus. And, in that way, it changed the way we looked at him. Would Nicklaus still have been considered the greatest player ever had he not won that 1986 Masters? Absolutely.

But by winning it, he became THE GREATEST.

We have seen some version of this play out again and again through the years. When an already great player does something special, it slightly but definitively changes the conversation about them. Usually, that something special comes with achieving a certain number. That’s mostly a baseball thing: 3,000 hits or 500 home runs or 300 wins or something like that. Adrián Beltré was legendary before he got 3,000 hits, but afterward, he became something just a little bit more.

Sometimes doing that something special means breaking or challenging a cherished record like when Drew Brees broke John Unitas’ consecutive week game streak of throwing a touchdown pass or when an aging Pete Rose (sort of) challenged Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. Again, they were already Hall of Famers (sans gambling). But the achievement took them to another place.

And sometimes, it is simply an already great player having a memorable performance. Think Roy Halladay’s playoff no-hitter or John Elway’s touchdown dive in the Super Bowl or Michael Jordan’s killer game-winning shot against Utah or Jimmy Connors’ final, ultimately unsuccessful, run at the U.S. Open.

Yes, of course, Justin Verlander was already a Hall of Famer before Sunday’s no-hitter. But after that incredible game, after he achieved his “Nicklaus,” the stories all over the country referred to him as “future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander.” There had been some who said that before, of course, but now on that is his official title: Future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander.


There’s an unrelated point I want to make about Verlander.

Verlander: 70.3/70.8 WAR.

Curt Schilling: 80.5/79.8 WAR.

Is WAR just wrong here? Verlander, of course, is not at the end of his career, not by a long shot, and he will undoubtedly do many more amazing things before he’s through. Heck he will almost certainly win the Cy Young this year, his second (Schilling never won a Cy Young Award).

But at this juncture, is Curt Schilling — the player, not the personality — really the better pitcher?

Nobody really thinks so.

Nobody thinks so even though there are also plenty of non-WAR advantages for Schilling. Verlander has been an excellent Division and Championship Series pitcher but in the World Series he’s 0-4 with 5.67 ERA. Schilling, meanwhile, is one of the greatest postseason pitchers in baseball history all the way around including a 4-1, 2.06 ERA World Series record.

Verlander has led the league in strikeouts five times, topping out at 290 Ks. But Schilling had THREE 300-strikeout seasons, as many as Sandy Koufax. Only Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan had more.

Schilling had so many memorable games — the Blue Jays’ World Series shutout to force what turned out to be the Joe Carter game, his extraordinary three games against the Yankees in the 2001 World Series, the bloody sock game, even his solid World Series start against Colorado when he was 40.

Verlander has had his moments, of course, like those three no-hitters and his fantastic performance against New York in the 2017 ALCS. But it’s not quite the same.

So why does EVERYONE think Verlander is better. And I do mean basically everyone. I did a quick Twitter poll, Verlander vs. Schilling — I even added the “purely as a pitcher” caveat in the hopes that people might put aside Schilling’s nastiness.

I’m not saying everyone was able to put aside their personal Schilling feelings, but still: Verlander won 89-11. He led 90-10 after 10 votes, and it basically stayed there the rest of the poll.

And let’s be clear here: NOTHING wins 89-11 on Twitter. Good would not beat bad 89-11 on Twitter. Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” would not beat Michael Bolton’s 89-11 on Twitter. Dark chocolate would not beat white chocolate 89-11 on Twitter.

So is WAR just disastrously wrong here? I don’t think this is about right or wrong. I just think there are any number of factors that make Verlander’s career FEEL better than Schilling’s.

Obviously, there’s Schilling’s unlikability vs. the charisma of Verlander and, especially, his wife Kate Upton.

Obviously, there’s recency bias.*

*As one brilliant reader wrong, it’s impossible to get an honest outcome in this comparison just two days after that Verlander no-hitter. But I wouldn’t put TOO much stock in this being all about recency bias. Let’s remember, Schilling got just 38.8% of the Hall of Fame vote in 2013, his first year on the ballot. I feel sure that EVEN THEN a 30-year-old Verlander would have gotten a higher percentage than that.

Schilling had numerous wasted years in what should have been the prime of his career while Verlander was dominant from ages 26-28 like you would expect.

Schilling shared the stage with superior pitchers — Randy Johnson in Arizona, Pedro Martinez in Boston — while Verlander has long been the top dog.

Schilling had a bunch of injury-plagued seasons which make his Baseball Reference page look spotty. Verlander has made 30 starts every year but one, and his Baseball Reference page just fuller and richer.

And, finally, Verlander is just a star … and Schilling was not. Some of that is easy to explain. And some of it is hard. At the U.S. Open in New York the last couple of days, the crowds rooted like crazy FOR Rafael Nadal and they rooted like crazy AGAINST Novak Djokovic. What is that? It’s life.