Until Verlander comes up big in the World Series, his legend will be tarnished

In three World Series starts for the Detroit Tigers, Justin Verlander has not delivered.

In three World Series starts for the Tigers, Justin Verlander has not delivered.

Is it just me, or does it seem that Cooperstown has already cleared space for Justin Verlander’s glove, spikes, and zip-lock bag of game-day stubble?

Certainly the overflow of glowing profiles and gushing predictions of even greater things to come for JV could lead one to believe that the voting for his Hall of Fame induction has already concluded. The only thing holding up the actual ceremony is the pesky requirement that he first finish his career, which probably still has another 10 or 12 years to run.

But here’s the problem some of us have with Verlander’s premature enshrinement. It is simply this:

In three World Series starts – two against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006 and once against the San Francisco Giants in 2012 – the tall right-hander known for scarfing down Taco Bell before his starts has racked up three losses, averaging just 5 innings each start and compiling a composite 7.20 ERA.

In other words, on baseball’s biggest stage, when the whole world is watching and his team and the fans need him most, Verlander has been a bust. Rinse and repeat: Verlander the Great and Powerful is 0-3 with a 7.20 ERA in World Series play. There’s no way to spin those numbers. With that kind of abysmal performance from the ace of the staff, it’s no wonder that the Tigers have been routed in the two World Series they have played in under Jim Leyland.

I don’t want to come across as dumping on JV. I don’t know the guy. As that golfer in the White House once said about Hillary, he seems likable enough. But for all the media talk of no-hitters, Kate Upton, strikeouts, Kate Upton, Cy Young awards, and Kate Upton, doesn’t anybody ever think to bring up his sorry outings against National League hitters in late October?

Hal Newhouser and Jack Morris were pricks. But Newhouser and Morris won when it really counted: the 7th game of the World Series. (As well as a 2nd game, a 4th game, etc.) Yes, yes, I know all about Verlander’s accomplishments in the regular season and in the contrived post-season tournament that teams must pass through before one survivor from each league makes it to the final dance. But, again, I’m talking here about the World Freakin’ Series. When you have two teams playing for all the marbles, what any player has done individually to get to that point is irrelevant. A banjo hitter can turn into a home run-smashing monster, a 25-game-winner can get repeatedly knocked out of the box – all part of the ambrosial unpredictability of World Series play. It’s also the time when the real studs are expected to overcome any vicissitudes and rise to the occasion.

Stats are wonderful. (But what the hell is WAR?) However, to me (and I would think to most fans), championships count far more than gaudy numbers and no-hitters. It’s the reason why, in any debate over who was greater, Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb, I always give the nod to the Babe. Ruth won several championships with the Red Sox and Yankees while Cobb, for all his .400-hitting seasons and batting titles and stolen bases, was a bust in his three World Series. The Peach often said he would’ve traded his records for just one championship. Hell, he might’ve thrown in one or two of his kids and his favorite hunting dog. (Well, maybe not the dog.)

Switching sports: think of the Detroit Lions of the 1950s. Talk about guys who came through when it counted. That band of ruffians compiled a 5-1 record in post-season play and three NFL titles. Forget stats. Bobby Layne’s overall post-season statistics were even more godawful than Verlander’s World Series numbers. Layne had 11 picks and just one touchdown pass – but that TD was the game-winning toss in the final minutes of the 1953 title game. Switching sports again: I always admired the way Steve Yzerman changed his game to win Stanley Cups. The high-scoring center didn’t care about winning an Art Ross trophy; he wanted the only hardware that mattered. Most athletes think that greatness in any sport should be measured by the one number that counts most: championships. By that measure Verlander has fallen short, at least so far.

The good news is that there’s still plenty of time. At 30 years of age, Verlander is young and in his prime, and he plays for an owner who agrees that the ultimate measure of success in any sport – be it hockey, arena football, softball, or baseball – is a championship. I have no doubt that if Verlander stays healthy (and seeing how Mr. I has stuffed enough pepperoni in his pockets to remain in Detroit for the balance of his career), he’s going to retire holding most team records. And at the pace JV is on, he will easily leave the game with Hall of Fame credentials. Let’s just hope that those credentials include a World Series championship (or two) in Detroit.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.