Why I’m Not Feeling So Enthusiastic About Justin Verlander

Justin Verlander is an incredible pitcher and he’s having an incredible year. No one is here to dispute this. He’s been killing it. He’s been dominant. He threatens to bring unhittable stuff to any given start. A Cy Young caliber pitcher on a World Series contender is quite an exciting thing. So exciting, in fact, that I’m afraid certain television personalities, professional writers, and casual baseball enthusiasts may be getting a bit carried away in their praise of the man’s performance. Watching television, or reading popular sports news websites, you would be forgiven to imagine that Justin Verlander is pitching the greatest pitches that were ever pitched. That his utter dominance has reached divine proportions. Amazing as he’s thrown the ball, and despite whatever else you may have heard, vintage Pedro Martinez has not taken the form of Justin Verlander in 2011. The truth happens to be something a bit less majestic than that. This is no shame for Mr. Verlander, to be certain, but I have to admit, I’m having a hard time avoiding all this charmingly misguided yet effusive praise, and it’s beginning to color the way I watch Verlander in these MLB playoffs. On Saturday, battling rain, delays, and a suspect strike zone, Verlander had a rough go of it, to the tune of 5 hits, 2 walks, and 3 earned runs in 4 innings. And I wasn’t all that bummed out. It’s rather petty, no doubt, but when Verlander struggles these days, part of me gets the sense that the cosmic ship is somehow being righted. That some vague notion of justice is being served in some way.

Let’s stat with a little something called ERA+. ERA+ does all the hard work for us, adjusting for park, and comparing pitchers relative to the league average performance of any given season. Every number over 100 represents a percentage point above league average. Verlander’s 170 = 70% better than league average. Sure, ERA+ isn’t taking into account all the fancy witchcraft that something like FIP might, but most casual sports fans and media supporters pay most attention to ERA anyway, God love them. At any rate, as a rough tool, ERA + should do a pretty good job letting us know where Verlander’s 2011 ranks historically.  Spoiler Alert: it’s not going to support him as the once in a lifetime MVP candidate he’s being presented as. A quick look at the ERA+ leaderboard over at Baseball-Reference, and we can pretty quickly see that this season’s performance places Verlander firmly in a tie for 158th place all-time. Despite my tone, this is nothing to scoff at—nonetheless, 158th should tell us something a bit different from what we’ve heard all season from the talking heads and overzealous columnists. For more context, we can continue to use ERA+ and compare Verlander’s season to a few recent performances, ones that may be more fresh in our minds.

Zach Greinke, 205 (2009)
Clay Buchholz, 187 (2010)
Chris Carpenter, 182 (2009)
Johan Santana, 182 (2004)
Josh Johnson, 180 (2010)
Mark Prior, 179 (2003)
Derek Lowe, 177 (2002)
Felix Hernandez, 174 (2010)
Tim Lincecum, 173 (2009)
Felix Hernandez, 172 (2009)
Jake Peavy, 171 (2004)
Justin Verlander, 170 (2011)
Tim Lincecum, 169 (2008)
Cliff Lee, 168 (2008)
Roy Halladay, 167 (2010)

There are some really talented pitchers delivering some really dominant performances on that list. There are Cy Young winners and All-Stars and potential Hall of Famers. There are not, however, any MVP winners on that list. Nor any candidates that got a whole lot of support for the award the year that they pitched so well. Certainly none of them experienced the kind of attention and magnification that Verlander has been granted in 2011. This isn’t to say a pitcher can’t win the MVP, of course they can, to suggest otherwise would be foolish!* It’s just to say that the Justin Verlander of 2011 hasn’t exactly been the Greatest of All Time. That’s perfectly fine. It’s great, even. But I’m having a hard time not bristling when I hear the hyperbole.

*It’s probably worth noting that Pedro Martinez of the year 2000, he of the 291 ERA+, only finished 5th in the MVP voting that season. Yes, that’s correct, an ERA+ of two-hundred and ninety-fucking-one.

Let’s tackle one last point before we call it a night. To even further pick nits, it’s entirely possible that Justin Verlander hasn’t even been the best pitcher this season, yet alone the greatest anyone has ever seen ever in the history of time. Taking a look at Fangraphs WAR, Clayton Kershaw (6.8) and CC Sabathia (7.1) can more than easily compete with Verlander (7.0), while Roy Halladay (8.2) would have every right to be kind of annoyed with Justin right now, seeing as he’s hogging all the Awesome Pitcher spotlight these days. Issues with WAR or FIP or whatever else notwithstanding, the point is there’s a legitimate conversation to be had, and it’s not being had. Many have decided that Justin Verlander has single-handedly put the entire Detroit Tigers roster on his back, intimidated their rivals in the AL Central into submission, pitched like a superhuman cyborg, and forged the path to the playoffs with his steely resolve. He’s been really, really good, but not quite that otherworldly. So please forgive my dingy pangs of satisfaction when the narrative caves in on itself.

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2 thoughts on “Why I’m Not Feeling So Enthusiastic About Justin Verlander

  1. Derek says:

    Sir,
    You shame yourself by neglecting to mention the miles per hour reached by the MVP’s fastball. Let me share a piece of baseball wisdom with you–if the digits be three, a future hall of famer is he.

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