By Mike Connors
© April 15, 2013
Ben Verlander had a choice to make after last season.
He had come to Old Dominion as both a hitter and pitcher, but thrived in neither his first two years. Coach Chris Finwood wanted him to focus on one role as a junior.
On paper, the choice was easy. Finwood thought Verlander had more potential as a hitter, and his pitching stats through two seasons - 1-3 with a 6.24 ERA - backed that opinion.
But Verlander is the younger brother of Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, a former Cy Young winner and Most Valuable Player. The two are close, and Justin's name is all over the record book from his years with the Monarchs.
"It was tough," Ben said. "Obviously, with my brother being who he is, everyone assumed I was going to be a pitcher."
But Verlander, 21, is a Dean's List student, able to block out emotion and focus on facts. And though his batting average was only .250 as a sophomore, he was more confident his chance to excel would be as a hitter.
It appears he was right.
Since the season started Feb. 15, Verlander has been the Colonial Athletic Association's Player of the Week three times. He's hitting .375 and is tied for the team lead with 27 RBIs. He leads the CAA with 10 home runs.
After deciding to divert his attention to hitting, Verlander didn't throw a pitch in summer ball. When he visited Justin in Detroit, he absorbed advice from Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon.
McClendon tweaked Verlander's swing, adding a toe tap similar to that used by Detroit slugger Prince Fielder. Back at ODU, Verlander worked with coaches to get his timing down.
By the middle of fall ball, Verlander was comfortable.
"We started getting into intrasquad games and my swing felt good," he said. "And as the fall progressed, I just felt better and better."
Despite his strong fall, Verlander, a 6-foot-4 right-hander, was platooning early this spring, still rarely hitting against righties. Then came March 9: He hit three home runs against Northeastern, matching a school record. All were off righties.
"Ben's a really smart player," Finwood said. "He looks for pitches, doesn't swing and miss a lot, he does a lot of things that make you think he's got a chance to be a good hitter. He just hadn't had a lot of experience."
In addition to a steady flow of at-bats, Verlander's success has stemmed from his study of the game. When he's not hitting or in the field - he plays outfield and first base - he's on the bench asking questions, Finwood said.
Watching tape of major leaguers, even retired ones - former Atlanta Braves star Chipper Jones used a toe-tap - is another Verlander trait.
"If you're a coach, you're lucky to get kids like him because there are just a few," said Wes Farkas, his coach at Goochland High School, outside Richmond.
After the Northeastern game, Finwood started playing Verlander regularly. Early this month, the coach came up with another idea.
Verlander had been hitting in the middle of the lineup, but he also has a good eye. He has more extra-base hits (18) than strikeouts (16) - and his six stolen bases are tied for the team lead.
So for an April 5 game at James Madison, Finwood put Verlander in the leadoff spot.
In the seven games since, Verlander has 11 RBIs, and the Monarchs (18-16) are 5-2, averaging 7.6 runs per game in the process.
"The first time since probably Little League I've hit leadoff," Verlander said. "I was a little shocked at first. But it means you're going to get more at-bats, so I just wanted to get on base as much as I could and help the guys behind me."
The Tigers drafted Verlander in the 46th round in 2010, mostly as a nod to Justin.
Verlander is eligible to be drafted again after this season, but Finwood has said most scouts think he has more work to do and could benefit from a final season in college.
"Guys can read the stat sheets and see he's putting up good numbers," Finwood said. "But they also know this is his first full year hitting every day."
Finwood does think Verlander will get a chance to work his way to the big leagues, though. If that happens, Verlander will give some of the credit to his evolution at ODU.
"I'm not viewed as just Justin's little brother anymore," he said. "I'm Ben Verlander. I hit and he pitches. It helped me to go my separate way."
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