WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — “Big tee time today.”
Justin Verlander is practically hollering across the Astros clubhouse because, well, he’s excited. It’s the first official day of spring of training, which means the first official golf game of spring training. Another big moment in what has been a continuous stream of big moments.
The past few months have been a whirlwind for Verlander. It started with the Aug. 31 trade that sent him away from the only team he had ever known. Then came the magical World Series run that, thanks in no small part to him, brought Houston its first-ever championship and encroached so far into autumn that Verlander had to charter a plane to Italy just to make sure he wouldn’t miss the rehearsal dinner for his November wedding. And, of course, the actual exchanging of vows with supermodel Kate Upton.
“It was a fantastic offseason,” the Astros ace said. A golf junkie who punctuated his hiatus by playing in the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach earlier this month, Verlander will head straight from the locker room to the links. For the moment, though, he’s doing baseball things, like standing in front of his cubby and reflecting on his excellent but abbreviated offseason adventure. “It was short, yeah. But for all good reasons.”
Reasons are exactly what thrust Verlander into the news earlier this month, before spring training even began. One day before the Astros held their first official workout, MLB Network host Chris Russo suggested that the Yankees, following the acquisition of reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, were the presumptive favorite to win the AL pennant. “There’s no way you can’t think that the Yankees are the team to beat in the American League,” Russo said. Later that day, Verlander tweeted simply: “I can think of a reason.”
It’s hard to argue with Verlander’s logic. Despite New York’s splashy offseason, Houston — which beat the Yanks in the ALCS — made a bold move of its own, acquiring former Pirates ace Gerrit Cole to deepen a rotation that was already one of the best in baseball. Not to mention, the Astros get a full season of Verlander, added a pair of proven veteran relievers in Joe Smith and Hector Rondon, and return nearly every key position player from a squad that led the majors in pretty much every offensive category. So yeah, Verlander can think of a reason. But thinking of a reason and verbalizing it are two entirely different things, especially when you’re the new guy in a clubhouse that features names like Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Dallas Keuchel and George Springer. Not that anyone in Houston seems to mind.
“He’s as much part of this team as anybody else,” general manager Jeff Luhnow said of Verlander. “I’m glad that he’s a spokesperson for us.” Given that the Astros are paying the 2011 Cy Young winner $40 million of the $56 million he’ll earn over the final two years of his contract (the Tigers agreed to pay the other $16 million), it’s the least he could do for them. But that’s not all Verlander’s doing.
Besides acting as Houston’s main mound man and mouthpiece, he’s also a mentor. On the first morning of spring training, the entire roster gathered around the oval-shaped locker room and listened as manager A.J. Hinch delivered his inaugural meeting spiel. When Hinch was finished, Verlander took it upon himself to stand up and cordially invite all the young hurlers in the room to come pick his brain should they ever feel the urge. Although that might not seem like a big deal, it is.
“I’ve never seen that before,” said 29-year old hurler Brad Peacock, now in his seventh big league season. “It was awesome.” Righty Collin McHugh, also entering his seventh season, was equally impressed: “You’d think a guy with his track record is going to come in and ride on his white horse and do this thing, but he was really humble.” As for Luhnow, he knew full well he was getting a horse. The humility was gravy.
“We knew he was going to make us better,” said the Astros GM, who was working in the Cardinals’ front office in 2006, when a 23-year old Verlander finished off his Rookie of the Year campaign with Detroit by starting Games 1 and 5 of the World Series against St. Louis. “What we didn’t realize is how he would play in our clubhouse. Sometimes you bring in vets, and they stick to themselves, they have their own way of doing things. Justin was surprisingly open and wanting to see how we did things, and see if anything we did could help him.”
Of course, when you have the kind of drop-off that Verlander suffered during the first half of last season, it’s only natural to search for answers. After posting a 3.04 ERA in 2016 and finishing second in the AL Cy Young voting, the 6-foot-5 righty stumbled out of the gate in 2017. He walked 51 batters in his first 104 innings and limped into the All-Star break with a bloated 4.73 ERA that suggested maybe his best days were behind him. Even though he’d started to turn things around by the time the Tigers traded him six weeks later, Verlander was in full sponge mode when he arrived in Houston.
He went out to the bullpen, where Peacock was throwing a side session in between starts, and asked his new teammate how he grips his slider and what he thinks about when he delivers it. He talked changeups with Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. “He likes to learn,” Peacock said. Despite a dominant two-month run in which Verlander won nine of 10 starts between the regular season and playoffs, had a 0.74 WHIP, and generally reaffirmed his status as one of the game’s elite hurlers, he’s still yearning for learning.
During an early spring training bullpen session, Verlander toed the rubber while Astros player development director Pete Putila stood behind him and used tablet-based technology to record each offering. After almost every pitch, Verlander turned toward Putila for feedback, even leaning in and peering at the screen multiple times. Once his bullpen was complete, Verlander huddled with Putila off to the side, gesticulating emphatically while discussing his slider and using terms like shape, spin rate and efficiency. “He’s got so much self-awareness,” Putila said. “He’ll use any piece of information that you give him.” Most importantly, he’s willing to pass that information on to anyone who asks.
“I like to work with younger guys, older guys, whoever,” Verlander said in front of his locker, his beloved golf gear waiting patiently behind him. “Especially spring training. It’s a time to try new things.”
For Verlander, it’s also a time to hit the links.
His goal? To be the leader in the clubhouse.
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