Whoever analyzed Justin Verlander as the No. 2 overall pick in 2004, positively or negatively, the words plus and command almost definitely weren't put next to each other in any sentence unless prefaced by the word "without."
See, as much as everyone loved Verlander's live arm, there was some concern with his ability to locate pitches. He struck out a ton of hitters in his three years at Old Dominion, but he also walked more than his fair share. And like many power pitchers in college, he didn't even need to throw a third pitch.
So when he signed late and didn't make his pro debut until the start of the 2005 season, no one knew exactly what to expect. They certainly didn't expect what occurred: A year that began in the Class A Advanced Florida State League, moved quickly to Double-A and advanced to a Futures Game appearance sandwiched between two Major League starts. The quick rise, coupled with the gaudy numbers -- 11-2, 1.29 ERA
(tops in the Minors), 118 2/3 innings pitched, 81 hits, 136 strikeouts and a .197 batting average against -- made Verlander the winner of the MiLB.com Starting Pitcher of the Year Award.
Verlander topped an All-Star list of competitors for the overall prize: Felix Hernandez, Chuck James, Francisco Liriano, Jeremy Sowers and fellow Tigers prospect Joel Zumaya all were worthy candidates.
The 22-year-old right-hander also earned Class A Pitcher of the Year honors. He may not have been in Lakeland all year, but when he was there, he was completely dominant, going 9-2 in 13 starts with a 1.67 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 86 innings. That was enough to give him the nod over Jimmy Barthmaier, Chance Douglass, Sean Gallagher, Gio Gonzalez, Phil Hughes, Ray Liotta and Andrew Sonnanstine.
The key to all of it, of course, was his command. Verlander immediately bought into the Tigers' program, and it had a huge impact. He walked just 26 all year, 19 in 86 innings in the FSL. At one point, he made 12 consecutive quality starts. And keep in mind this was his first go-round in pro ball.
"This is what I wanted to do," Verlander said of his debut season. "I was focusing on more control, less walks. I think I accomplished that. A lot of it had to do with the team I was playing with. It's a blast. We've got a bunch of really good guys on the team. It's a great team atmosphere."
The Lakeland Tigers did have a tremendous pitching staff in the first half of the season, with four -- including Verlander -- being named to the FSL All-Star Team. But
Verlander was being modest when crediting his teammates for his success. He moved up to Double-A and was less hittable, keeping Eastern League opponents to a .103 batting average and posting a 0.28 ERA in seven starts. Clearly, the individual attention he received before the season began paid off.
"I worked with (Tigers pitching coach) Bob Cluck in Spring Training and he worked with me on the mound, not letting my front side fly open or my arm clearing too early," Verlander said. "In the bullpen, I focus on it. In the game, I just kind of let it happen. You can't focus on mechanics during the game. It translated over into the games and I've been throwing more strikes than I had been."
"He is the total package," Lakeland manager Mike Rojas said. "He is a legitimate No. 2 pick overall. He's got a tremendous arm, with tremendous composure on the mound and
Verlander, it should be noted, didn't start off in a Short-Season, or even Low Class A league. He went to Class A Advanced, then up to Double-A. The days of simply being
able to blow people away with his plus, plus fastball were over from the get-go.
"There are a ton of good players out here and honestly, I can't just blow a fastball by everybody," Verlander said. "There's a ton of talent down here. I pitch like I would at any level, setting guys up with my off-speed or fastball, depending on the hitter.
"I do try to stay within myself more than I did in college, when I did tend to just rear back and let it go. I think that does have a little bit to do with my control and helping that."
The Tigers were so impressed with his arm, poise and, yes, his command, that they brought him up for two big league starts. The fact that those were on the uneven side and Verlander ended up getting shut down early with some arm troubles does nothing to dull the shine from his mercurial climb through the Tigers' system. Look for him in a big league park near you in 2006.