Car collector Verlander in search of his classic form
Former AL Cy Young winner spends early spring rehabbing from January surgery
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Justin Verlander pulled into Tigertown on Wednesday morning in an orange Lamborghini Roadster he had just received, having ordered it two years ago. It's the kind of car that draws looks as it rolls down the streets of this central Florida town.
"I just got it a few days ago," he said. "I've been waiting for it for two years. When I get it, it's like a kid at Christmas."
But then, so was the yellow Ferrari he drove to camp Monday, or the white Mercedes-Benz he drove in over the weekend. So would most of the other sports cars he owns, a collection that now outnumbers the spots in the eight-car garage at his home in Virginia.
When he wants to drive around in something more subdued, he has a vehicle for that, too, at least by his standards.
"Range Rover," he said.
He picked up the car collection kick from his dad. Richard Verlander didn't have the money to drive anything like that when Justin was growing up, but he had enough to drive something sporty.
"When I was in high school, he had like a used '94 Corvette, and he let me drive it to school every now and again," Verlander said, noting the upgrade to the Ford Taurus he was driving on the other days.
"We weren't a wealthy family by any means, but we did OK, so whatever he could afford was in and out of the garage. He never had more than one. My mom would probably say he overextended himself a few times, but he kind of got me started being a sports car guy. I always envisioned having a collection if I made it and got to that point where I was able to buy stuff. I would say I've got a pretty decent collection."
His next dream is a throwback of sorts. He has been searching for a classic American muscle car, a 1969 Camaro or a Mustang.
"I definitely want some old American V-8 muscle. I just haven't been able to find the right one," he said.
As a car collector, he wants a timeless piece to add to the latest and greatest he has bought. As a pitcher, he falls somewhere in between. As he creeps into his 30s, he's no longer the latest model in power pitching, but he's right around the top of his class. After eight-plus seasons, 1,865 innings (including playoffs) and nearly 30,000 Major League pitches, he has some miles on him, but he's far from a classic model just yet.
Yet this winter, for the first time in his career, he needed some work. Thanks to core muscle surgery in January, Verlander has to hold himself back for the first time in a Spring Training.
While pitchers faced hitters for the first time Tuesday on the back fields at Joker Marchant Stadium, Verlander was on the bullpen mound beyond the right-field fence, throwing to a catcher's mitt rather than a strike zone. He'll throw another mound session later in the week before getting his chance to face hitters later. He'll miss the first turn through the rotation when exhibition games begin next week.
Verlander's first meeting with live hitters is usually one of the early highlights of Spring Training, a glimpse into the disdain for hitters -- no matter what uniform they wear -- that has pushed Verlander this year. It's as hard to miss for the ugly, mistimed swings as it is for the four-letter frustrations Verlander blurts out at a pitch he doesn't execute to his liking. It can be mid-to-late February, and the snow can be piling up on the field up north at Comerica Park, but Verlander has his standards.
He hasn't been taking full part in fielding drills, so that hypercompetitive presence trying to win drills is just starting to emerge. The guy that used to dare Jim Leyland to try to hit a ground ball past him during pitchers' fielding practice has been limited in his range.
He's still pushing himself. He gets feedback from his catcher on the break of his curveball, or the movement on another pitch. And he never stops at his assigned pitch count.
"Whatever the number is, he always seems to be one over," said manager Brad Ausmus, understanding more and more the combination of trust and negotiation Leyland forged managing Verlander for the past eight years. "When it was 20, he threw 21. When it was 30, he threw 31. When it was 40, he threw 41."
He actually blew past his 50-pitch count Tuesday, tossing 54. Pitching coach Jeff Jones drew the line when Verlander tried to get into fielding drills right after that.
"Jeff's not letting me do the PFP drills. I tried and he carried me off," Verlander said. "I didn't want to leave, threw a little temper tantrum."
Barring a setback, he'll catch up eventually to the rest of the rotation. In his mind, he's already there.
"As far as throwing goes, I think I'm there, maybe a little bit behind where I'd normally be -- not much, but a little bit," Verlander said. "But as far as just what everybody else is working on, building arm strength, refining mechanics, not worrying about surgery, I feel that's where I'm at right now."
From there comes the next challenge, regaining the form that made him baseball's nastiest pitcher in 2011 and '12, and a postseason force last fall. It took him nearly a full regular season to get to that point for last year's playoffs. His best outing of the year was the game the Tigers needed from him the most, eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts in Oakland to win Game 5 of the American League Division Series and send Detroit on to the AL Championship Series.
He has referenced that point more than once already. He also knows he can't spend the entire season trying to get to that form.
"Last year was a grind," Verlander said, "and I kept telling you guys every day after the halfway point -- when I realized things weren't right and I had a lot of work to do -- my goal was 'I need to be ready for the playoffs.' And I was able to achieve that. I got ready and was pitching to what I expected to pitch to in the playoffs. My goal now is the start of the season. Whether that's Game 1 or what, I don't know, but I intend to be ready."
While Ausmus is preaching an abundance of caution, he won't rule out naming Verlander his Opening Day starter, even on a staff that features reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and AL ERA champion Anibal Sanchez. That says plenty about the currency Verlander has earned.
Verlander wants to live up to it, whether he's the Opening Day starter or not. But he's simultaneously having to work his way back to full health and his old form. He has a little over six weeks to not just get his full agility back, but the crispness on the fastball, the tightness on the curve, and that precision to paint the corners.
In other words, he has to pull out of the garage ready to go 100 mph. Not that he has hit that speed using anything other than a fastball.
"We really don't need to talk about that," he said.