How Verlander Salvaged The Tigers’ 2016 Season A Year In Advance

By: Will Burchfield
@burchie_kid

Justin Verlander was thrilled with the moves the Tigers made ahead of the 2016 season.

Despite the team’s last-place finish in 2015, owner Mike Ilitch and GM Al Avila doubled down on their win-now approach, adding Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann and Francisco Rodriguez.

“I have to commend Mr. Ilitch and Al for putting together what we all thought at the beginning of the year was a great ball club,” Verlander said last month.

According to Avila, Verlander has himself to thank for the aggressiveness of the front office.

“Going into the offseason, one of the reasons that Mr. Ilitch continued [to say,] ‘Hey, let’s keep on going,’ is because we saw Verlander coming back to what he used to be,” Avila told the Stoney & Bill show on Monday morning.

What he used to be – and what he is now – was a far cry from what he had become. After posting five straight All-Star seasons from 2009-2013, Verlander fell off the rails in 2014. This downturn extended into the 2015 season, when he pitched to a 5.05 ERA through August.

Then he took the mound at Fenway Park and turned his year around, quite possibly salvaging the Tigers’ future in the process.

In his final 11 starts of 2015, he posted a 2.12 ERA, 0.956 WHIP and a .194 batting average against. He was one of the lone bright spots in a dreary conclusion to the season, casting a hopeful ray of light into 2016. So the Tigers, with their ace resembling his former self, decided to pony up once more.

It isn’t often that last-place teams make such bold moves in the offseason. But the Tigers already had a strong core in place, led by a former Cy Young winner who suddenly looked capable of more of the same. It’s hard to know if Verlander’s resurgence was the deciding factor in the team’s confident offseason approach, but it certainly painted a brighter picture for Ilitch and Avila heading into winter meetings.

So the Tigers spent.

And Verlander has justified it.

Though he scuffled through the first month of the 2016 season, the six-time All-Star has been flat-out dominant since the beginning of May. In fact, Verlander forecasted his own turnaround on Twitter, telling his followers he was on the cusp of a revival after getting roughed up on May 3 versus the Indians.

In 21 starts since that proclamation, Verlander is 12-4 with a 2.58 ERA, 0.916 WHIP and a .192 batting average against. This torrid stretch has thrust him into the A.L. Cy Young race and restated his reputation as one of the most lethal pitchers in the game. Verlander vowed to turn things around, and Avila is hardly surprised the Tigers’ ace lived up to his word.

“One thing about Verlander you have to understand, too, is that guy works real hard, he has a lot of pride and there’s no way that he is just going to accept being a second-tier type of guy. He’s always going to strive for being the best and really that’s what’s turned him around. It’s that pride, it’s that work ethic and to his credit he’s really made it happen for himself,” Avila said.

He’s made it happen for himself and he’s made it happen for the Tigers, who pulled within one game of the second Wild Card last night with a 4-3 win over the White Sox. Upton tied the game at two with his 18th homer in the bottom of the sixth; three innings later, Rodriguez nailed down his 37th save. Had it not been for Verlander’s return to form late in the 2015 season, it’s quite possible neither player would have wound up here in the first place.

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