Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander finally earned the adulation with a remarkable 2009 campaign.
Starting on May 10, May's American League Pitcher of the Month led the Tigers on a 147-day first place expedition. Though Detroit was dramatically unseated by Minnesota in the 163rd game, it was no fault of Verlander's.
Among AL Triple Crown pitching categories, Verlander ran away with the strikeout title (269), shared the lead in wins (19) with Felix Hernandez and CC Sabathia, and placed sixth in earned run average (3.45).
That's two of three for the 26-year-old fireballer. He is sure to finish top five in Cy Young Award voting, if not top three.
Last year was not the same story, however.
Mired in a season-long slump, Verlander limped to an 11-17 record, posting a 4.84 earned run average. Rumors of injury and pitch-tipping grabbed ink in local papers. Many questioned if management let him pitch too many innings too early.
The adversity spawned a shift of focus.
Bringing a new disgust for the opposition to the mound every fifth day, Detroit's ace returned to the success of 2006 and 2007. The former AL Rookie of the Year abandoned corner-nibbling for sizzling, pin-point accuracy, walking 24 fewer batters in 39 more innings.
"He’s got a Roy Halladay breaking ball and a fastball that speaks for itself," said veteran infielder Ramon Vazquez.
This season's return to glory, combined with his Rookie of the Year Award, a no-hitter in 2007, and three 17-plus win seasons have certified his place among the vaunted. Detroit has a legitimate ace for the first time since Jack Morris.
Assuming owner Mike Ilitch locks him up for the long term, just how great could Verlander be in Detroit?
Substandard years like 2008 are not out of the realm of possibility, but there is no reason to suspect them to become the norm. Taking a realistic look, if Verlander can sidestep prolonged injury and average a modest 14 victories and 175 whiffs for 10 seasons he would sit at 205 wins and 2,496 strikeouts, well within striking distance of Detroit's all-time leaders.
The Tigers victory record holder is Hooks Dauss with 223, followed by George Mullin (209), and Mickey Lolich (207). Meanwhile, Lolich sets the strikeout tone (2,679), backed up by Jack Morris (1,980), and Hal Newhouser (1,770).
Amp his production up to 15 wins and 180 strikeouts over 12 seasons and you've got a new leader in both categories (245 wins and 2,906 K's).
Currently, Verlander ranks 34th in wins and 23rd in punch outs. Expecting him to continue such high-level production for a dozen years might be a tall order, but hasn't the former Old Dominion University star given us plenty of reason to believe?