Justin Verlander wants to be the Tom Brady of baseball
Justin Verlander signed a new contract with the Houston Astros in February that will take him through the 2021 season. He will be 38 at that point with close to $300 million in career earnings and a résumé that will make him an easy choice for the Hall of Fame once he lands on the ballot.
But Verlander has no plans to retire when his contract ends. He wants to be the Tom Brady of baseball and play into his 40s at a championship level.
In what is now his 15th season in the majors, Verlander still loves what he does.
“I couldn’t put a finger on it. I know I’m just as motivated now as I’ve ever been,” he said.
“I guess it’s just my personality. It’s who I am. I just want to strive to be the best I can for as long as I can and enjoy it. Leave my mark on the game.”
That mark is already in bold type. Verlander, who is scheduled to face the Red Sox on Sunday afternoon at Minute Maid Park, is 8-1 with a 2.24 earned run average in 11 starts this season, and last Tuesday took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the White Sox.
Among active players, Verlander has the most WAR for a pitcher and is second in wins, starts, innings, and strikeouts to 38-year-old Yankees lefthander CC Sabathia, who will retire after this season.
“I can’t see stopping. I enjoy playing. I enjoy coming to the park every day, all that,” Verlander said. “None of that’s changed. But really, what it comes down to is just the competitiveness, the sheer will to go out and be my best.”
Verlander is durable, too. Over the 13-year period from 2006-18, he averaged 32 starts and 211 innings. In an era where teams look for reasons to give their starters extra days off, he wants the ball.
Verlander disagrees with the popular notion that being traded to the Astros late in the 2017 season revitalized his career. He was 5-1 with a 2.32 ERA in his last nine starts with the Detroit Tigers before the trade.
“I like to remind people of that,” he said.
But Verlander does agree that the trade opened doors that had been shut in Detroit. Winning the World Series that season checked off an important goal.
“As far as career trajectory and winning ballgames being part of a winning atmosphere, obviously coming here in that aspect was extremely revitalizing,” Verlander said.
The analytically driven Astros also have helped him better understand what he could do to improve.
“One thing they do well here is let you know what you do well, if that makes sense. It seems simple to say but it’s harder than that,” Verlander said. “They communicate to you how you can streamline yourself and become more effective. How to not help the hitter.”
It’s similar to what Chris Sale is experiencing with the Red Sox, learning to pitch at 92-93 miles per hour with the ability to reach back and get 95 when needed.
Only with Verlander, the cruising speed is 94-95 with the ability to hit 98 when needed.
“If you can do that and refine your control and add and subtract, it’s a weapon,” Verlander said.
Information is another weapon. Verlander dives into the detailed scouting reports the Astros make available to their pitchers. Over the 15 years of his career, how he prepares for games is what has changed the most.
What used to be a few minutes of going over the lineup with the catcher before the game has become two or three days of sitting in front of a laptop looking for tendencies and weaknesses.
“I study a lot of stuff, like I’m studying for a midterm, before every start,” Verlander said. “It’s honestly like taking a test. When you study and you know you have it nailed, you have a lot of confidence.
“I feel like that when I step on the mound. I have all the information. I’m not taking the human element out of it; I have to execute. But I’m pretty confident in myself I can do that.”
Brady has said the same thing; that pregame preparation is like having the answers to the test before you sit down.
Verlander is 205 strikeouts shy of becoming the 18th pitcher with 3,000. If he does pitch into his 40s, he’s likely to finish in the top 10.
“That would be incredible,” Verlander said. “How long has this game been played? To be in a group that small, it would be extremely special. Obviously pitchers throw up more strikeouts now, but longevity is becoming an issue.
“I don’t think 3,000 strikeouts and 300 wins will become a regular thing. Guys don’t play that long anymore.”
Five of Verlander’s 25 postseason appearances have come against the Red Sox and he has given up only 10 earned runs over 28⅔ innings in those games.
One run in particular sticks out.
In Game 3 of the 2013 American League Championship Series in Detroit, Verlander took a shutout into the seventh inning before Mike Napoli homered to center field. It was the only run of the game.
“That was a great game,” Verlander said. “One pitch. If you told me I would go out there and pitch eight innings of one-run ball, I’d have said great. I think we’ll win that ballgame most of the time. But we couldn’t scratch across a run.”
Had the Tigers extended that series, Verlander would have pitched Game 7 at Fenway Park. But Shane Victorino helped win Game 6 with a grand slam in the seventh inning.
“I thought that was our year,” Verlander said. “I love pitching at Fenway, too. I love baseball; I love history; I love the great atmosphere.
“You think of all the great players here in the past, the Green Monster. I really enjoy Fenway.”
Verlander beat the Sox in Game 1 of the ALCS last year at Fenway, allowing two runs over six innings as fans chanted his first name trying to rattle him.
“They do a good job of trying to get into people’s heads,” Verlander said. “What they did last year was pretty cool. I liked it.”
The Sox came back and beat Verlander in Game 5 in Houston to clinch the series. Rafael Devers had the big hit, a three-run homer in the sixth inning.
Verlander plans on pitching in many more big games down the road. Like Brady, he can’t see walking away knowing he can still play at an elite level.
WHAT A RELIEF
Uehara’s season one to remember
The Red Sox issued a short press release when they signed Koji Uehara before the 2013 season, and the story we had in the Globe was only a few hundred words long.
The Sox were a terrible team and Uehara was an aging reliever who agreed to an affordable deal. The thought was he would pitch in the seventh inning for certain matchups.
The idea that he would stand on the mound after recording the final out of the World Series 10 months later seemed impossible.
But he did just that. Uehara had one of the best seasons for a reliever in history, becoming the closer in late June after a series of injuries. Over the weeks that followed, he was dominant.
In 41 appearances after becoming the closer, Uehara allowed two earned runs on 14 hits and two walks over 44⅓ innings while striking out 59. The Sox would not have won 97 games and then the Series without him.
So when Uehara, now 44, announced his retirement from baseball this past week in Japan after 21 years in the game, it brought back a lot of good memories for Red Sox fans.
Uehara’s fastball averaged 90 m.p.h. but he threw a devastating split-finger fastball that looked like a four-seam fastball right up until it plunged out of the strike zone. As the game turned toward higher velocity, he won with artistry.
Uehara was fun to be around, too. He used a translator for interviews but spoke English for less formal conversations with teammates and reporters and made everybody laugh.
Many of the Sox players said he was one of the best teammates they had in their careers.
He was certainly one of the most memorable players I’ve covered.
Near the end of the ’13 regular season, I wrote a feature story on Uehara and asked what winning the World Series would mean to him after a long career.
“If I accomplish that, I would like you to come back and ask me then. I’ll have a good answer,” he said.
When the Sox beat the Cardinals to clinch the championship, the players celebrated on the field and deep into the night in the clubhouse.
Uehara, soaked with beer, grabbed my arm at one point and whirled me around.
“I have the answer. It’s [expletive] great!” he said.
The following spring, Uehara landed an endorsement deal from a Japanese brewery and insisted the beat writers accept a case of beer from him. We took it up to the press box and cracked them open after the game.
Here’s hoping the Red Sox bring Uehara back to Boston sometime this season to give the fans at Fenway Park a chance to pay tribute. He deserves it and the crowd would love it.
A few other observations on the Red Sox:
■ Through Friday, J.D. Martinez had hit .301 with an .847 OPS in the 29 games he was the designated hitter. He had four homers and 18 RBIs. You expect better from him, but that’s more than acceptable.
But in the other 19 games when they had a DH, the Sox were a disaster. They were 7 for 73 (.096) with one home run and three RBIs. Based on OPS, the Sox are 11th in the league overall. They were first last season.
Alex Cora has tried Steve Pearce (five games), Eduardo Nunez (four), Mitch Moreland (three), Dustin Pedroia (two), Christian Vazquez (two), and Mookie Betts, Rafael Devers, and Sam Travis once each.
Michael Chavis could be the answer. When Martinez starts in the outfield or isn’t playing, Chavis is a good alternative. That will be even more the case once the Sox get some second basemen back from the injured list.
■ As for those second basemen, the Sox will have some interesting decisions to make once Brock Holt and Pedroia are deemed ready to return from their rehabilitation assignments. That is likely to be this coming week.
The Sox are carrying 13 pitchers, so one spot can be created by dropping an excess reliever who has minor league options. But the other move isn’t clear.
Nunez has struggled all season and is a detriment defensively. Pearce also has slumped but has looked better in recent days and has value as a platoon partner with Moreland at first base.
The Sox once saw Chavis as a short-term solution when he was first called up, but it’s obvious he’s far too important to the lineup to send back now.
Pedroia’s knee issues make it difficult to give up depth options at second base. But now that Marco Hernandez is in Triple A, the Sox would be covered.
Nunez could be the odd man out. But this also could be one of those cases where an injury suddenly crops up. Roster manipulation is an art and there’s almost always a way to make it work.
■ Since the start of the 2017 season, Xander Bogaerts has played 90 percent of the defensive innings at shortstop. That’s impressive for a player who many doubted could stay at shortstop when his career started.
For a manager, knowing he has a reliable shortstop makes putting a lineup together a much easier chore.
Giant comeback from Sandoval
Guess who’s having a good comeback season at the expense of the Red Sox? Pablo Sandoval.
He appeared in 45 of the first 49 games for the San Francisco Giants and hit .289 with a .945 OPS with starts at third base, first base, and DH.
He is 10 of 27 with seven extra-base hits as a pinch hitter. Sandoval is primarily a bench player, but he has been a productive one. He even pitched a scoreless inning.
“I have to admit he’s been pretty good for them,” said a scout who follows the National League West. “[Bruce] Bochy puts him in a position to succeed. They’re getting a lot out of him.”
The Red Sox are paying $17,445,000 of Sandoval’s salary this season, all but the major league minimum of $555,000. This is the final year of his contract.
Get this: Sandoval gave the Red Sox minus-2.1 WAR at a cost of $47.2 million from 2015 until he was released in 2017. He has since given the Giants 1.0 WAR with the Red Sox paying off $46.5 million.
San Francisco plays at Fenway Park Sept. 17-19. If Sandoval is still with the Giants then, it would be his first time playing in Boston since June 2017.
How loud will those boos be?
Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez is 10 of 28 with seven home runs and 16 RBIs in seven games at Camden Yards this season. Infielder Gleyber Torres is 12 of 23 with seven homers and 10 RBIs, also over seven games. As a team, the Orioles have only 22 more home runs at their ballpark than Sanchez and Torres . . . Mike Trout went into the weekend with 251 home runs and 195 stolen bases. No player in history has had 250 home runs and 200 steals before the age of 28, and only 39 players have done that during their entire careers . . . The Arizona Diamondbacks called up infielder Kevin Cron. It’s not like they had much choice. The 26-year-old former third-round pick hit .339 with a 1.237 OPS, 21 home runs, and 62 RBIs in 44 games for Triple A Reno. To be sure, the ballparks of the Pacific Coast League tend to inflate offensive numbers. But 21 home runs in 199 plate appearances are hard to ignore. Cron, the younger brother of Twins first baseman C.J. Cron, was on a pace to drive in 189 runs . . . Happy 85th birthday to Jim Mahoney, who made his major league debut with the Red Sox in 1959 and played 31 games that year. The only home run Mahoney hit for the Red Sox came after he pinch ran for Ted Williams on Sept. 14 at Fenway Park. Also celebrating birthdays are former Sox pitchers Chuck Hartenstein (77) and Rob Murphy (59).