Commentary

Justin Verlander: Cy Young and MVP?

Updated: August 19, 2011, 5:35 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

If an artist were to carve a Mount Rushmore-like sculpture depicting the most beloved Detroit athletes of the past 25 years, it would probably look something like this: the Lions' Barry Sanders, the Red Wings' Steve Yzerman and the Pistons' Isiah Thomas.

If you're wondering where the Tigers are, well, join the club.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesJustin Verlander has a shot at major awards, especially if the Tigers make the postseason.

Outside of an unexpected run to the 2006 World Series, there really hasn't been much Motor City baseball to care about since the "Roar of '84" -- and yes, some of us still call it that.

However, with Justin Verlander's dominance in five of the past six seasons, Detroit not only has a new local legend to adore but the face of Major League Baseball.

I don't say that just because he's the Cy Young front-runner. He has a realistic chance to become the first starting pitcher since Roger Clemens in 1986 to win the top pitching award and league MVP.

If the Tigers manage to hold on to win the American League Central for the first time in franchise history, Verlander should win the award. If he doesn't, it's because he's playing for Detroit.

Yeah, I said it.

Because he's playing for Detroit.

In 1990, when Cecil Fielder became just the second player in 25 years to hit 50 dingers, he finished second in MVP balloting, with thinking being he didn't win because he didn't play for a team above .500. The following year the Tigers finished 84-78, battled for the East division title until the final weeks and ended the year in second. But Fielder lost to Cal Ripken Jr., who led Baltimore to a sixth-place finish.

I hope that kind of voting nonsense doesn't happen to Verlander because he, and my city, deserve better.

When Detroit was seesawing back and forth across the .500 mark in May, it was Verlander who outpitched Josh Beckett and four-hit the Boston Red Sox. The Tigers, 26-26 after that win, have had a winning record since.

Earlier this month, when Cleveland threatened to sweep the Tigers and cut the division lead to one, Verlander struck out 10 to save the day. Earlier this week Minnesota scored 15 runs in its two wins over the Tigers and just one in its loss to Verlander.

I'm a Tigers fan and always will be. So believe me when I tell you this team has far too many holes to be considered a World Series contender. But there's this hope: Even though they are tops in the worst division in baseball (five AL teams and six NL teams had better records as of Friday morning), there isn't a manager who would want to face Verlander in a short series.

When a mediocre team can become world beaters because of one guy, that one guy should be baseball's most valuable. In the past Verlander's gaudy strikeout numbers didn't yield much in the standings (other than that magical 2006) -- not so this season.

Of Verlander's 18 wins, 14 have come after a Tigers' loss. Detroit has only dropped three in a row once since May and that is because Verlander has only lost twice in that span.

What other team in postseason contention relies so heavily on one guy for its success?

[+] EnlargeWillie Hernandez
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI Willie Hernandez won the MVP, AL Cy Young and the World Series with the Tigers in 1984.

We know his numbers are Cy Young-worthy: top three in wins, innings pitch, opponent batting average and complete games. Because he's the first Tigers pitcher in nearly 30 years to have three consecutive seasons with 200 strikeouts, we expect him to be a local legend.

But he should be MVP if he can drag into the playoffs a team whose hitters have struck out 872 times (831 is the AL average).

If he were doing this in Boston, New York or Philadelphia he would be the new Clemens. But he's in Detroit, and as I said earlier, we're used to getting slighted & not that some marginalization isn't deserved.

At 26 seasons and counting, this is the Tigers' longest World Series drought since the franchise claimed the first of its four in 1935 (the others coming in 1945, 1968 and that '84 roar).

Despite being wrongfully overlooked, Fielder did have baseball's attention for a handful of years in the early 1990s, but it's hard to think of him as the face of baseball when his teams never reached the postseason.

Not hating on the big fella, just pointing out the facts of his stay in Detroit: 245 homers, six seasons, two winning records.

But this year, this player, headed toward the Tigers' fourth winning season in six years and a second postseason appearance, is different.

He is the reason why, for the first time in as long as I can remember, there are Tigers T-shirts on the backs of baseball fans outside of Michigan. Outside of the Midwest. While traveling I saw a guy in a Verlander T-shirt and asked him if he was from Detroit.

He said no, Florida, but he just loved Verlander.

I haven't seen that kind of response to a Detroit player of a non-championship team since Sanders was breaking ankles a decade ago.

At 28, Verlander has elite talent and is among the best pitchers in baseball. He is also filling the gaping holes in the hearts of Detroit sports fans and making us matter again. With the Pistons struggling, the Wings choking and the Lions lioning, we sorely needed that.

Baseball also needs stars and Verlander, who longtime baseball manager Jim Leyland called "the best pitcher I've ever had" is a star among stars.

Just like Oakland's Dennis Eckersley was when he won Cy Young and MVP awards in 1992.

And Boston's Clemens was when he won both awards in 1986.

And Detroit's Willie Hernandez was when he did it in, yep, the Roar of '84.

Being a local legend is great, winning the Cy Young fantastic, but Verlander deserves the MVP as well. He owns baseball right now. When the dust clears, I hope he is awarded accordingly.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

MORE COMMENTARY »

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine