Verlander turning into must-see

Nick (editor): Verlander alert!

Dave (blogger): Crap! At the grocery store after going to the gym.

Nick: He’s thru 6, with 10 K’s.

Dave: On way home.

Nick: Thru 7 and making the Indians look stupid.

Dave: Crap!

Justin Verlander, of course, didn’t get his second no-hitter of 2011 on Tuesday night, but he did throw what might have been the most dominant game of the season: 9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 12 SO. Using the Bill James Game Score method, which grades a start on a 0 to 100 scale, Verlander scores a 94, the best of the season, edging James Shields’ 13-strikeout, three-hit shutout over Florida on May 22.

What’s frightening to opponents -- and in particular to American League Central rivals such as, say, the Cleveland Indians -- is that Verlander seems to have turned it up a notch since that May 7 no-no in Toronto. That day, Verlander struck out just four and after the game talked about his maturation as a pitcher, not always going for the strikeout and conserving his energy early in the game. Indeed, he was clocked at 100 mph in the ninth inning.

Well, as of five days ago, he had yet to strike out 10 batters in a game this season. Now he’s done it in back-to-games. He’s 8-3, his ERA is 2.66 (more than a run below his career average), and he’s walking fewer hitters than ever and allowing fewer hits. Opponents are batting .185 off him. I’m pretty sure most observers would agree he’s the best pitcher in the AL right now.

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As I drove home, I started thinking of this question: Since I’ve been a baseball fan (1976), which starting pitchers have had the most dominating stuff? By that, I guess I mean something like from a scouting perspective -- velocity, command, pitch variety, stamina, stature and so on. Here’s the list I came up with:

1. Randy Johnson. Once he developed control of his 100 mph heater and wipeout slider, he just destroyed hitters. Lefties would come up with colds, sore backs and pink eye when he pitched. To put his dominance in perspective: Verlander has 18 10-strikeout games in his career; Johnson twice had 23 10-strikeout games in one season. Good lord.

2. Pedro Martinez. As former ESPN analyst (and former major infielder) Dave Campbell once told me, “The thing that makes Pedro so unhittable is he has four pitches. Guys like Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton were basically fastball-slider guys. You could feel comfortable against them. You’d go 0-for-4, but it would be a comfortable 0-for-4. Against Pedro, you have no chance.” At his peak, he had an explosive fastball and the best changeup in the game, plus a slider, curve and cut fastball, all thrown with impeccable control -- and an occasional one high and tight, just to make sure you didn’t dig in a little too much.

3. Nolan Ryan. He’d be downgraded for lack of command, but there’s a reason he threw seven no-hitters, throwing his fastball and curve (and adding a changeup late in his career), never giving in to a hitter and knocking you on your rear end if he felt a little mean that day.

4. Stephen Strasburg. Yes, he was that electrifying. Even if he comes back at 90 percent, he’ll be great.

5. Justin Verlander. The most impressive thing is his ability to maintain his velocity into the ninth inning. The command hasn’t always been there and at times the fastball can be too straight, which has made him a little more hittable at times than you would expect.

6. Dwight Gooden. The young Doc had a high fastball that he blew by hitters, and a big curve that made girls swoon and grown men cry.

7. Kevin Brown. Threw a hard, two-seam sinking fastball that would dive in on right-handed batters. The pitch was so dominant it was both a strikeout pitch and a ground ball pitch.

8. Kerry Wood. Oh, that rookie season ...

9. Roger Clemens. Primarily a fastball/curveball pitcher early in his career; added that unhittable splitter later on.

10. John Smoltz. On pure stuff, he would grade higher than Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.

Anyway, that’s my list -- many others I could have included, such as CC Sabathia, Bret Saberhagen, David Cone, the young Bartolo Colon, Curt Schilling, Mario Soto, Mark Prior, Johan Santana ...

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Back to Justin Verlander. Is this the year he puts it all together? By that, I mean keeping his ERA to less than 3.00 (his career best is 3.37), maintaining his health (never an issue with him during his career) and keeping his focus for 30-plus starts?

I think it is. Maybe that May 24 start against Tampa Bay, in which he allowed six runs with only two strikeouts, was a bit of a wake-up call. As talented as he is, the great pitchers still have to pitch and think and work hitters. Verlander has the stuff. But there is no cruise control in baseball. His foot is on the pedal, and right now -- like Dwight Gooden in 1985 or Pedro Martinez in 2000 or Randy Johnson in 2001 -- he’s become appointment viewing.

Because I suspect I’ll be getting a couple more “Verlander alert!” emails this season.