Verlander leads by example

Updated: February 20, 2010, 7:25 PM ET
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Tigers pitchers ran sprints Saturday, sort of a shuttle run to assorted orange cones on a back field at Tigertown. There were several heats, it was a competition, however unofficial and unimportant. Still, Justin Verlander figured he might as well finish first, as always. He won all but two of the sprints -- one because some pitcher jumped the gun and got a tremendous head start, and the other "because I slipped,'" Verlander said with a smile.

Verlander is the best pitcher on the Tigers, he is one of the best pitchers in the American League, this is his sixth spring training and, most important, he recently signed a five-year, $80 million contract. He doesn't need to win the sprints on the second day of spring training, especially when the second day of spring training also happened to be his 27th birthday. But, he won anyway. And he didn't run his hardest to show all the young guys how it's supposed to be done, he did it because that is how he approaches everything in life.

"I've been asked if a big contract will affect Justin, and I ask those people, 'Have you ever met him? Do you know who he is?'" asked Tigers shortstop Adam Everett. "He is a blue collar guy. He is a competitive guy. He has to win at everything he tries, and he does."

Verlander is the biggest reason the Tigers have a chance to win the American League Central. They have potentially overwhelming pitching with Verlander at the top of the rotation followed by Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer, and a bullpen loaded with power arms, led by new closer Jose Valverde and a healthy Joel Zumaya. Tigers catcher Alex Avila said of the new, and old, arms in camp, "I've had to add more padding for my mitt.'"

Verlander is the leader of the staff in every way, especially with his work ethic. It is a risk giving any pitcher a five-year contract, but that risk will be less with Verlander than perhaps any pitcher in the game. "I didn't learn anything watching him pitch last year because he throws 100 mph in the ninth inning, and I'm not capable of doing that," Porcello said. "But I learned so much just watching him work, and his preparation every day."

Verlander is so prepared, so committed to his craft, he lives most of the winter in Lakeland, Fla., spring home of the Tigers, because it allows him to work out at their facility with trainers and strength and conditioning coaches. "I didn't want to just go to a gym by myself and work out the wrong way," he said. "This way, I know I'd be working out the right way." Now, partly because of Verlander, roughly 50 players in the Tigers organization work out in Lakeland starting Jan. 1.

The preparation, not to mention his tremendous stuff, is why Verlander is 65-43 lifetime in the big leagues. It is why he went 19-9 with a 3.45 ERA and a league-leading 269 strikeouts last year. "He is so good," Everett said. "I'll be standing at second base, a runner will get there, look at me and say, 'I have no idea how I got a hit off him. No idea.'"

One teammate said Verlander thought briefly last year he was too intense on the mound and tried to tone it down. "Then he didn't do very well for four starts so he went back to his old self," the teammate said. "Now you don't want to get near him on days he pitches."

Verlander said, when pressed, he is the most competitive person he knows. And it comes as no surprise that growing up in southern Virginia, Verlander's favorite pitcher to watch was the Braves' John Smoltz, whose competitive nature is legendary in the game.

Has Porcello ever met anyone more competitive than Verlander?

"I don't think so," he said.

"I've always been that way," Verlander said. "When I was a kid, I would always eat the fastest. I would always be the first one finished. I always thought the goal was to finish first."

In eating, sprints, the AL Central, everything.

Tim Kurkjian is senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.