Before Justin Verlander became a household name on the verge of winning the American League Cy Young Award and possible MVP honors, he was a highly touted, but unproven pitching prospect who was skyrocketing through the Detroit Tigers farm system.
Set to face off against CC Sabathia and the New York Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS at 8:37 PM tonight, the hard-throwing righthander first garnered national attention when he was selected second overall in the 2004 MLB Draft by Detroit. He didn’t sign until after that season was over, and began his very brief minor league career in High-A Lakeland at the start of the 2005 season.
Just 22 years old at the time, Verlander dominated the Florida State League to the tune of a 9-2 record and 1.67 ERA in 13 starts, posting an incredible 10.9 K/9 ratio (104 K in 86 IP) in the process. He was subsequently promoted to Double-A Erie, where he was somehow even better. Much, much better.
But it isn’t his performance that stood out to him so much as it was good times with his teammates, and that’s what Verlander spoke about when asked by the Democrat about his fondest memories in the minor leagues.
“When I was in Double-A, there was this big kind of condo complex area that a lot of the guys rented out,” he said.
“A lot of guys stayed there, so we would hang there a lot. After a game, you’d go over somebody’s house and have a couple beers and just hang out and chill almost every night. That was a lot of fun, just hanging out with the guys and having a good time.”
The numbers with the Erie Seawolves are hard to believe. In seven starts that encompassed 32 1/3 innings, Verlander allowed a grand total of one run. One. That’s it. One run.
(That run came off the bat of Shelley Duncan, who hit a solo shot off of Verlander in the fourth inning of a 6-1 July 28 Thunder loss at Waterfront Park in which Verlander spun eight otherwise scoreless frames and was relieved by Fernando Rodney).
That’s good for a microscopic 0.28 ERA. He walked seven, struck out 32 and left the minors behind him for good after that.
Yet, for all the accomplishments that’s he racked up in his six full Major League seasons — He’s a four-time All-Star, the 2006 AL Rookie of the Year, started Game 1 of the World Series as a rookie and has thrown two no-hitters — there was a time where he was uncertain about getting used to life in the big leagues.
“I didn’t know what to expect with the lifestyle,” Verlander said.
“But playing in the minor leagues, it kind of gets you acclimated with the road trips and such. You go on the road for three or four or five days, it gets you prepared pretty well.”
But for many of his teammates in either Lakeland or Erie, there were no big leagues to prepare for. For example, of the 39 players who played on that season’s Lakeland team, only 10 made it to the game’s highest level. Verlander was fortunate to have his road to the big leagues be a very short and smooth one. For others, he knows they aren’t as lucky.
“Just keep working hard,” was Verlander’s advice to those in the minors.
“First and foremost, you have to believe in yourself and your ability and know that you can make it here. Once you know that, you just work hard and hopefully you can prove it up here one day.”
Verlander has proved it both at the minor and major league levels. His overall MiLB numbers are staggering: 20 starts, 118 2/3 IP, 11-2 record, 1.29 ERA, 26 BB, 136 K, 0.90 WHIP. Now? He’s regarded as one of the best, if not the best, pitchers in all of Major League Baseball.
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com
Verlander’s was the first in a series of stories in which some of the biggest stars in the game today recall their memories of playing in the minor leagues. Stay tuned to hear from Albert Pujols, Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard, Mariano Rivera and many, many more.