Verlander completes historic season
November, 15, 2011
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Paul SancyaUndoubtedly, the 2011 season will be one to remember for Detroit's Justin Verlander.Justin Verlander led the American League in wins, ERA, strikeouts, innings pitched, WHIP and hits per nine innings. He threw a no-hitter, had 16 starts in which he allowed one run or no runs and didn’t lose a game from mid-June through the end of the regular season. To nobody's surprise, he won his first Cy Young Award on Tuesday, becoming the first Tigers pitcher to win since reliever Willie Hernandez in 1984.
A few will argue for CC Sabathia. Indeed, here are the voting results from the SweetSpot Network bloggers (seven points for first, four for second, three for third; the real vote also awards two points for fourth and one for fifth):
Justin Verlander, Tigers: 169 points (23 first-place votes)
CC Sabathia, Yankees: 91 points (2)
Jered Weaver, Angels: 65 points
Dan Haren, Angels: 15 points
James Shields, Rays: 10 points
The basic case for Sabathia rests on that he pitched in a tougher division in a tougher park while allowing fewer home runs (24 for Verlander, 17 for Sabathia) and suffering from bad luck while Verlander received plenty of good fortune. I don’t quite buy it. Verlander allowed 14 fewer runs while pitching 14 more innings. Although Yankee Stadium is a good hitters' park, it favors left-handed batters over right-handers, so Sabathia wouldn’t necessarily face the same disadvantage as a right-handed pitcher. (Indeed, he allowed a .618 OPS at home, .710 on the road.) Comerica Park, despite its big dimensions to center field, actually plays as a slight hitters' park, according to Baseball-Reference's park factors. Verlander allowed a .547 OPS at home, .563 on the road.
As for tougher competition, that part is true. Against the top four offensive teams in the AL (Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers, Tigers), Sabathia made 10 starts, Verlander five. Against the bottom four offenses (Mariners, Twins, Athletics, White Sox), Sabathia made seven starts, Verlander 13. It's an important consideration, but perhaps it's also important to note that Sabathia didn't step it up against the best teams: He went 1-4, 6.39 ERA against Boston; he allowed 21 baserunners in 13 innings against Detroit; he was 2-0 against Texas in three starts but with a 5.14 ERA. In his limited action against the best hitting teams, Verlander posted a 2.70 ERA.
Finally, there is the matter of Verlander's allowing a .236 average on balls in play and Sabathia a .318 mark. Verlander's BABIP was second-lowest among starters (behind Jeremy Hellickson's .223), while Sabathia's was one of the worst. Sabathia allowed 230 hits in 985 plate appearances; Verlander allowed 174 in 969. That's a difference of 56 hits that Sabathia supporters have to account for via bad luck or good luck -- or about one hit per game per pitcher. For what it's worth, Baseball Info Solutions rated each team's overall defense roughly the same -- the Yankees as 15 runs below average, the Tigers as 18 runs below average.
Anyway, when trying to digest all these numbers, one little one jumped out at me: When Verlander went to a 2-0 count -- when hitters usually thrive -- he held opponents to a .202 average with just one home run in 89 at-bats, with 24 strikeouts and 24 walks. When Sabathia went to a 2-0 count, opponents hit .316 (24-for-76) with 32 walks and 16 strikeouts. Another big difference: When batters put a 1-0 pitch in play, they hit .241 off Verlander (13-for-54) but .403 off Sabathia (29-for-72). Isn't it possible that Sabathia more often threw hittable pitches on that count, trying to avoid that 2-0 hole?
1. Justin Verlander
2. CC Sabathia
3. Jered Weaver
4. James Shields
5. C.J. Wilson
* * * *
At some point early in the season, I said something to Mark Simon on the Baseball Today podcast along the lines of "Will Verlander ever put it all together?" My point was that he had entered the season with a career 3.81 ERA; he had finished fifth in the 2007 Cy Young vote and third in the 2009 Cy Young vote, but he'd never had that knockout season, never had an ERA below 3.00.
He certainly delivered on that front. How historic was his season?
In the most basic level of analysis -- preventing runs -- not that historic. He prevented 47 fewer runs than the average 2011 American League pitcher would for his workload, which ranks 51st since 1961. The top 10: Pedro Martinez, 2000 (79); Roger Clemens, 1997 (74); Pedro Martinez, 1999 (67); Dwight Gooden, 1985 (63); Randy Johnson, 1999 (62); Greg Maddux, 1995 (62); Steve Carlton, 1972 (61); Sandy Koufax, 1966 (60); Bob Gibson, 1968 (60); Ron Guidry, 1978 (59).
Of course, not all runs are created equal. A run in low-scoring 1968 was worth more than a run in high-scoring 1999. That's where a stat like WAR (wins above replacement) comes in, as it adjusts for era and home park. On Baseball-Reference, Verlander moves up to 32nd since 1961. However, most of the leaders on that list come from the 1960s and '70s, when pitchers threw more innings and made more starts; if you pitched more, you could accumlate more value. If we change the cutoff date to 1990, Verlander jumps up higher on the WAR list: seventh (tied with 1993 Jose Rijo), behind only 1997 Clemens, 2000 Martinez, 1990 Clemens, 2009 Zack Greinke, 2002 Johnson and 1995 Maddux.
Verlander's dominance manifested itself in other ways as well: Since 1990, the only AL pitchers to allow a lower OPS were Martinez in 1999 and 2000 and Nolan Ryan in 1991. Since 1990, only five times has a starter allowed a lower batting average than Verlander's .192 mark -- Martinez twice, Ryan twice and Hideo Nomo.
In the end, maybe Verlander's season isn't quite Pantheon level -- but it was an amazing run, probably one of the top 10 pitcher seasons of the past 20 years.
I don't know about you, but I can't wait for the encore.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.