By: Will Burchfield
“Ver was outstanding, he’s been outstanding,” Brad Ausmus said of Justin Verlander after the Tigers’ ace shut out the Indians over 7.2 innings on Tuesday night at Comerica Park. “I’m tired of talking about how good he’s been, to be honest with you. If you’re not sure how good he’s been, just watch him.”
To watch Verlander over the past five months has been to witness mastery. The 33-year-old pitcher has been locked in a shatterproof groove, restating his reputation as one of the best starters in the game. His April struggles notwithstanding, Verlander’s 2016 season ranks as one the best of his career and trumps that of any other American League pitcher.
Hey, isn’t there an award for that?
With due respect to Rick Porcello, Corey Kluber and a few others, Verlander should claim the A.L. Cy Young Award. He won’t – because wins, wins wins – but he absolutely should.
The Cy Young Award is to be given to the best pitcher in each league. We use a number of different measures to determine that, but the only criteria that should count are those that a pitcher can control.
Let’s start with earned run average. Verlander is third in the A.L. with a 3.10 ERA, a number that seems to shrink every time he takes the mound. He has allowed three earned runs or less in 17 straight starts, shaving his ERA by more than a run since July 2. A quick snapshot of the ERA leaders in the A.L.:
|1||Aaron Sanchez (TOR)||3.06|
|2||Masahiro Tanaka (NYY)||3.07|
|3||Justin Verlander (DET)||3.10|
|4||Rick Porcello (BOS)||3.11|
|5||Corey Kluber (CLE)||3.14|
Not a whole lot separates these guys. And it’s unfair to say one of them has been better or worse than the others based on a fraction of a run. But Verlander is clearly among the league’s elite in terms of limiting the opposition, which is the definition of a pitcher’s job.
Stat-heads might point out here that FIP – fielding independent pitching – is a more accurate representation of a pitcher’s performance than ERA. It approximates what a pitcher’s ERA would look like over a given period of time assuming league-average results on balls in play. Verlander ranks ninth in the A.L. with a 3.55 FIP, behind each of the four pitchers listed above.
But FIP is a theoretical stat. It doesn’t tell us what happened, but what “should” have happened. Verlander may have benefited from, say, abnormal hit sequences, saving him a few “expected runs” in the process, but that can’t be held against him. The Cy Young Award is based on actual results.
But heck, let’s indulge the sabermetricians. Let’s take a look at a stat called Win Probability Added, which, in short, determines how much a player increased his team’s odds of winning in each game. WPA is accrued over time, with a player’s every action – positive or negative – counting toward a season total.
No pitcher in the A.L. has boosted his team’s chances of winning this season more than Justin Verlander. The leaders:
|4||Chris Sale (CHW)||2.55|
|5||Jose Quintana (CHW)||2.32|
What about Wins Above Replacement, you say? WAR, like FIP, is a theoretical stat. It doesn’t tell us how many actual wins a player provided, but how many hypothetical wins he provided in a context-neutral environment where every home run, strikeout, walk, etc. is created the same. That’s not how baseball is played, of course, and it shouldn’t be how awards are voted on. For what it’s worth, here are the top five A.L. pitchers in WAR (based on fangraphs.com):
Enough with sabermetrics, though. Let’s get back to some less head-spinning stats. We often use the word “dominant” when discussing pitchers, describing their ability to smother opposing hitters. Dominance is a tricky thing to quantify, but on-base-percentage against seems like a good place to start. A hitter’s job is to get on base. A pitcher’s job is to stop them – and no pitcher in the A.L. has stopped them more consistently this season than Verlander.
|5||Marco Estrada (TOR)||.278|
Based on the chart above, it should come as little surprise that Verlander is also among the league’s best in terms of WHIP. The A.L. leaders:
Another word we tend to attach to pitchers is “electric.” It’s a description as vague as it is colorful, but it seems to speak to the eye-popping nature of a guy’s pitches – fastballs that slice through the zone, sliders that dart out of it. If dominant pitchers stifle hitters, electric ones make them look silly. And hitters never look sillier than when they strikeout. Here, then, are the A.L.’s most electric pitchers this season:
|5||David Price (BOS)||224|
Verlander’s career high for strikeouts is 269, which he set in the 2009 season. He won’t top that number this year, but he’s likely to surpass his second-best mark of 250, set in 2011. Back then, of course, Verlander was one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the game, unleashing upper-90s fastballs like it was nothing. His heater has lost some gas since, hovering between 93-95 mph. That he continues to rack up strikeouts is a testament to his evolution on the mound. In baseball parlance, a “thrower” has become a “pitcher.”
Then again, Verlander might say with a wink, when he needs a little something extra, he can reach back and find it.
Lastly, we commend pitchers who are “workhorses.” In this case, the definition is pretty clear: a dude who just doesn’t tire. And innings pitched is almost a perfect statistical proxy. Though somewhat out of a pitcher’s control based on his manager’s proclivity for going to the ‘pen, elite ability and high stamina will invariably lead to heavy usage. Verlander’s always been known as a workhorse, and he’s lived up his reputation this season among his A.L. counterparts:
It’s hard to paint a more comprehensive portrait of a pitcher. In terms of what Verlander can control, he has been the most complete hurler in the A.L. this season. He has pitched deep into games, struck batters out, limited traffic on the base paths and kept runs off the scoreboard. He has been resolute, electric, dominant and flat-out good.
But ahhh – wins. Wins, wins, wins. Though we know better than to measure a pitcher’s performance based on such a circumstantial stat, it still seems to factor heavily into Cy Young Award voting. And here is where Verlander loses ground:
Tied for sixth with Chris Tillman and Hisahi Iwakumu is Verlander. He has 16 wins. In other words, a slew of factors, outside his control, have conspired in his advantage on 16 occasions. Well that’s nice.
It’s widely understood that wins are an overrated statistic, and Verlander’s 2016 season is a perfect example why. Without parsing the numbers, Verlander has pitched at least seven innings while allowing three earned runs or fewer in 18 of his starts. And just eight of those starts have resulted in wins.
Well that’s a bummer.
“He pitched well enough to win.” It’s an old baseball trope, heard frequently in managers’ offices and locker rooms around the league. It applies to Verlander as much as any starting pitcher in the A.L. this year. That it hasn’t translated to actual wins should not matter. What should matter is that, time after time, Verlander has done everything in his control to put the Tigers into position to win.
Resolute, electric, dominant and flat-out good. Sounds Cy Young Award-worthy to me.