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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Ben Verlander may get drafted this week because of his game, rather than just his name

DETROIT — His name is still the same. But it’s his game that he’ll be judged on now.

Ben Verlander was drafted as a senior out of high school by the same organization that employs his older brother, the Detroit Tigers.

Three years later, he’s draft eligible again as a junior at Old Dominion University, the same school where his older brother starred.

But if (or rather when, perhaps) Ben Verlander is drafted in this week’s Major League Baseball draft, it will because of the quantum leaps forward in his game, rather than simply on his last name.

Having decided to follow his own path as just a position player this past season — rather than continue pitching, like his older brother, Justin Verlander, arguably the best pitcher in the game of baseball at the moment — Ben Verlander has made himself into a prospect, someone whose game can stand on its own, without any reference to his older brother.

How much has he helped himself?

“I think it’s astronomical. I think it’s huge,” Justin said. “He went from somebody that might have been drafted as a favor to somebody that’s a legitimate draft pick with a legitimate skill set.”

There’s no guarantee that Ben will go in the first couple of rounds of the draft, which starts with Rounds 1 and 2 on Thursday. Both are broadcast on MLB Network in prime time this year, starting at 7 p.m. The next seven rounds will be Friday, starting at 12:30 p.m., followed by Rounds 11-40 on Saturday, beginning at 1 p.m.

But there’s a chance he will be, before it’s all over.

“Yeah. I’m sure he’s excited. I mean, I know he is. He’s not going to say ‘Hey, Justin, I’m so excited.’ I know he is, and I know how proud myself and my parents are of him. It wasn’t an easy decision for him to just give up pitching like that, and to make such leaps and bounds, and to get so much better so quickly, you don’t see that very often,” said Justin, who has been more than willing (and excited) to talk about his younger brother’s exploits this season.

“Even coaches here noticed a big difference from last year when he was really good. I think he’s definitely got a long ways to go as far as body type, and getting bigger, stronger, faster, and I think he could very well mature into a great hitter.”

He proved he could be a pretty darned good one, given the opportunity to concentrate on it full time.

Ben went from hitting .250 as a sophomore to .367 as a junior, and nearly doubled his slugging percentage — with 11 doubles and 12 homers to go with — leading the Monarchs in runs scored, multiple-hit games and stolen bases. He finished the season as the team’s leadoff hitter, and on a seven-game hit streak — which wasn’t even his longest streak.

He was the ODU team MVP, and is a semifinalist for the national Gregg Olson “Breakout Player of the Year” award, the winner of which will be announced later this month.

It’s been a blur.

And, it may just get more blurry, if his name gets called in the draft.

“It’ll be an exciting day,” said Ben, admitting that the attention from scouts has ramped up this season. “This past year, I’ve been talking to teams. But this has all just kind of happened — it’s all kind of surreal. Just kind of have to sit back, and talk with my parents about things that are happening, and take it from there.”

He might still need another year of seasoning, considering that he’s only been a full-time position player for one season.

As a sophomore, he was still pitching part time.

But an 0-1 record and an 8.83 ERA that season convinced him it might not be a route that would take him where he wanted to go.

As a Dean’s List student at Old Dominion, he was more than smart enough to see that.

So was his coach, Chris Finwood, who met with Ben before the start of his junior season.

“It was difficult. After my sophomore season, I went in and talked to my coach, and we just decided what would be best for me would be just to focus on one thing. He didn’t lead me in any one direction, but we both knew that hitting was the way to go. So, it was tough to give up at first, but I love playing every day,” Ben Verlander said. “It was a tough decision.”

Did his brother know, too?

“Yeah, he did. And I called him up right after it happened,” Ben said. “Just being able to focus on just hitting every day has made a big difference. ... Obviously, going to Old Dominion — he went there, and it was a big shadow to live up to, but just being a position player now has really helped (me) get away from that, and be my own player.”

Part of Ben’s success has to be credited to Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, who helped change the youngster’s approach at the plate, changing his load, and adding a toe-tap for timing.

“It’s actually rather complex, because you’re changing the way you swing. I kept my swing the same, but I changed my load. Just the timing is very different, so you have to work hard every day,” Ben said in late May, after the conclusion of the ODU season, when he and the rest of the family drove up from Virginia to visit Justin.

“It’s something that takes a while to feel natural. You have to be in the cage every single day until it feels natural.”

How quickly he’s taken to it has drawn notice.

Ben was the subject of a thorough feature in USA Today.

His elder brother, for once, was asked about HIM in a TV interview, on MLB Network’s “Intentional Talk.” So who’s giving the hitting tips, Justin — who is 0-for-24 in his career — was asked.

“Obviously, I’m not the one,” Justin quipped.

The elder brother was also asked if he’d really promised to plunk his little brother, should the two ever meet on the field.

“We’ll see someday. We’ll find out,” Justin said with a grin.

That’s just it.

They probably will.

Becoming a full-time hitter has more than likely given Ben a chance to take one in the ribs from his brother — oh, and live out the dream of every kid who picks up a bat in Little League, by doing it in the major leagues.

And it’s also given him a chance to do it on his terms, rather than trying to duplicate what his older brother has done.

McClendon even jokes that Ben is more likely to get his first MLB hit before Justin Verlander is.

“Yeah, that’s kind of the family joke now. I still like to give him a hard time about it,” said Ben, who Justin fully expected to rub it in about his hitting prowess, but hasn’t ... yet.

“I actually haven’t given him any grief about it. He’s been the one. I read in an article that he admitted I was the better hitter, which — he’s never admitted I was the better anything. To see that was pretty crazy,” said Ben, admitting that was a new feeling. “Yeah, it was the first (time).”

It may not be the last.


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