Justin Verlander continues search for perfection in first season with Mets
PORT ST. LUCIE -- In the dugout a couple of hours before Wednesday’s game, Buck Showalter was relaying what he’d learned about his new Mets co-ace, Justin Verlander, during their time together this spring.
“He’s always chasing perfection,” the manager said. “He’s always driven to get better. He’s working on a specific pitch down here because he wants a little different look. He’s thinking about how he wants to pitch somebody, getting feedback from hitters and coaches on shaping his pitches.”
Showalter smiled a knowing smile, as if to say he’s quickly come to understand why Verlander shows no signs of slowing down at age 40, coming off his Cy Young Award season with the Houston Astros in 2022.
“He’s just got a thirst for ways to always improve,” he said. “And he demands that of the people around him. He’s a lot like Max [Scherzer] in that sense. He’s just not as front-and-center with it.”
No, Verlander doesn’t quite ooze intensity in Scherzer-like fashion. And it remains to be seen if he’ll be holding court with other pitchers in the dugout during games, something that became practically a ritual for Mad Max.
But make no mistake, Verlander brings his own future Hall-of-Fame presence and work ethic that, much as did with Scherzer, can only benefit the Mets in ways even beyond his performance.
Indeed, after throwing what seemed to be five brilliant innings of pitching against the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday, allowing one hit, no runs, no walks, while racking up eight strikeouts, Verlander was asked what he thought of his outing.
“Need some work,” he said.
He was dead serious, but perhaps he saw reporters looking at him curiously and felt the need to explain that, results aside, his slider felt “sloppy” to him on this day, and he thought hitters were too quick to recognize it even though they swung through it.
Then after offering more detail on the vagaries of his slider, Verlander paused and said somewhat sheepishly, “I also might be thinking too much about it. That’s what I do.”
Chasing perfection indeed.
He left little doubt that he’s a student of pitching, a “tinkerer,” as he put it. It helps explain his success in his late 30s, as he re-invented himself in some ways after being traded from the Detroit Tigers to the Astros in 2017, making significant changes based on technology that was new to him there.
Beyond that, however, and perhaps even more significant as he heads into his first year as a Met, Verlander seems to be welcoming the huge expectations he brings to town, embracing questions about what it would mean to his legacy to win a championship in Queens.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I was actually talking with Dave Robertson about his time with the Yankees, what winning a championship was like, what the parade was like. Obviously in that city it’s just iconic. I don’t know what it would mean for my legacy or what, but I know that’s why we play the game: you want to win a championship.
“If we were able to do that for this organization, particularly one that has gotten close a couple of times but hasn’t been able to get over the hump in a while, and one that has a wonderful fan base I’ve come to know in a short period of time…those are stories that live forever. That would be pretty special.”
Verlander then was asked if he had already envisioned being in a parade in New York after winning a championship.
“Have I envisioned it?’’ he repeated. “No. I’m not afraid to talk about winning a championship. I think establishing a culture where you expect to win a championship is important. You should be able to talk about it. That’s what we’re all here for. You don’t shy away from it.
“However, you don’t put the cart before the horse. You start envisioning the parade and you’re too far ahead.”
In short, it seems clear Verlander is going to be comfortable as a star in New York, a city where he has already spent considerable time in part because of the duties of his supermodel-wife, Kate Upton.
And as we’ve seen over the years, that’s important in terms of handling the spotlight, the media scrutiny, and even the fan reaction that seemed to take Francisco Lindor by surprise during his difficult first year as a Met in 2021.
It all starts with performance and at age 40 nothing is guaranteed, but Verlander has been remarkably durable during his long career. He rarely missed any significant chunk of time until needing Tommy John surgery in 2020, and remarkably he returned from that to pitch to a 1.75 ERA in his first season back on the mound, winning his third Cy Young Award last season.
Furthermore, he’s talked about pitching well into his 40s, noting on Wednesday that “the preparation and fire is all still there. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t.”
Even so, some of his new teammates seem a bit in awe of him, much the way they were with Scherzer last season.
“I’m amazed at how much fire he’s got for how long he’s been doing it,” said reliever John Curtiss, who lockers next to Verlander in spring training. “He’s 40 and he’s as hungry as a rookie. Max is the same way. It’s pretty badass to have them both here.”
Whether it results in that long-awaited championship remains to be seen, but Mets fans had to be thrilled with what they saw and heard from their new co-ace on Wednesday.
Even if Verlander himself was not.