Peter Gammons: Verlander and Astros are built for “moment” games

There’s no way to measure how Justin Verlander would have finished the 2017 were he still in Detroit. Al Avila and Brad Ausmus understood what going to Houston might mean to him; they know him, appreciate and admire that he is a moment pitcher, that with the Astros position players and fellow alpha personalities like Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel that it would drive him.

Verlander is fearless, he is one of those rare persons who is totally at ease with who he is and lives for the thrill of walking up a mound in the first inning like Mick Jagger walking out and holding the microphone. Ausmus caught someone like that—Roy Oswalt. In one of Bill James’ most fascinating essays, he defined “big games,” rated “big game pitchers” from 1950-2013 and listed Oswalt as his number one, and Ausmus well remembers going to St. Louis for Game Six of the 2005 NLCS after the Albert Pujols homer off Brad Lidge in Houston, watching Oswalt walk to the mound in the bottom of the first and just knowing Oswalt would deliver a pitch that he didn’t believe was perfect.

Verlander is 34 now, the same age as Curt Schilling in 2001. It was said by many that had the Phillies not traded Schilling to Arizona, he would not be the Hall of Famer he deserves to be, as he, most of all, was a moment guy. Schilling at 34 won 22 games, pitched 256 2/3 innings, struck out 293 and walked 37 and won four games in the post-season as the Diamondbacks won their only World Series. From 34 on, he won 10 post-season games, including one in each of of the three rounds for the 2004 and 2007 Red Sox, and when he retired after 2007, his Pitching WAR was 80.1. In his last eight post-seasons dating back to 2012, Verlander has a 1.83 earned run average and line that reads 73.2 IP,44 H, 15 ER, 15 BB, 80 K.

Schill constantly reinvented himself because of his preparation, his great delivery and his thirst for greatness. In 2007, the Red Sox would fib with their velocity postings on the scoreboard, but it didn’t matter that he sometimes threw 85-87 mph, because he found a way to win against the Angels, Indians and Rockies.

So Verlander has constantly reinvented himself. He came up in an organization that had no interest in Pitch F/X, no analytics, but when Ausmus took over, he brought in a couple of grad school analytics students, then Dave Dombrowski began assembling an analytics staff. Verlander discussed what Ausmus, who spent 18 years catching pitchers. Thought he needed to do something to extend his career, and became a preparation hound. He learned how to use his velocity so it would last. He went from fastball/curveball/changeup to where he was Saturday, using 71 fastballs (up to 98.3 MPH), 39 sliders, 12 curveballs, 2 changeups in a 124 pitch complete game, 2-1 win against the Yankees.

Is he yet a Hall of Famer? Because of the way pitching usage has morphed the last five years, it’s hard to compare eras. Verlander has 188 wins, so 230 is easily in sight. His pitching WAR is 56.9, higher than Sandy Koufax or Early Wynn, with the opportunity to approach Schilling’s 80.6, which is 26th all-time, right behind Mike Mussina and Bob Gibson. He’s averaged 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings for his career.

Give credit to Astros owner Jim Crain. He didn’t care about the money. “After all that the people in Houston have gone through, we had to do whatever we could to be a significant part of their recovery,” Crain said last weekend. He did not linger on the minor leaguers; hey, pitcher Jorge Guzman, whom they sent to the Yankees for Brian McCann, is considered by several teams as having a higher ceiling that the trio they sent to the Tigers, and McCann is here catching Verlander in this run to the World Series. Sometimes tomorrow never comes; it never has for the Houston Colt 45’s/Astros, and Verlander is the here and now.

He started Game One against Boston. He relieved and got eight critical outs in the clinching Game four. He came back on three days rest, threw 124 pitches and beat the Yankees. Going back to his 1-0 loss to the Red Sox in the 2013 ALCS Verlander and Dallas Keuchel have thrown 44 1/3 innings, allowed 6 runs, walked 10 and struck out 47 against the Red Sox and Yankees.

When you’re talking about the 21st Century, facing Boston and New York are moment games. What Verlander and Keuchel hope is that they eventually lead to a moment when, as Jeff Bagwell always said they experience the greatest thing in sports, being at the bottom of the pile on the last day of the season.


  1. Ghost of Fenway says:

    Even though it ended the season, seeing Verlander come out of the pen in game 4 was one of those “this is what the game is all about” moments.

  2. Schilling was one of the true big game performers I have seen, and Verlander reminds me of that kind of presence. Year after year he continues redefine himself and get the job done. Ya he is not the same pitcher that he once was from a stuff perspective, but his knowledge of the game / how to pitch combined with his discipline to get the most out of his aging body and arm is paving his way to cooperstown.

  3. Daniel Adler says:

    As a Tigers fan, seeing Verlander leave was maybe the toughest things to see since Barry Sanders retired. He was the pitching staff for last half decade or so. The other guys fed off his competitive drive,.. ya he had a billion dollar contract, but it never changed the way he approached the game : “win above all”. Perhaps one of the few mega-contract guys out there that actually lived up to the deal.

  4. So Brad deserves a big “thank you” for not only giving JV advice to boost his game but also getting the Tigers out of the Dark Ages concerning analytics. Tigers just now getting it together after teams line Astros have been using for yrs

    • Ghost of Fenway says:

      indeed, and I really hope we wind up with Ausmus in Boston. Maybe Verlander too, once the Astros realize they can’t pay him 28m each of the next 2 seasons (not that the Sox can at this point given their budget)… but you never know.