Cy Young? Forget it. With the way Justin Verlander has carried the Tigers he should be a legitimate MVP front-runner.
MVP awards are usually reserved for hitters since pitchers have the Cy Young to shoot for, but Verlander this year should be one of the rare occasions where the voters make an exception. Consider this:
- Verlander leads the majors in wins with 18. His second-place earned run average is at 2.35, and with Jered Weaver's ERA ballooning the last couple of starts we could see him take the lead in that as well.
- Verlander is a known workhorse, but he's taken that to an all new level this season. His 202 innings pitched is tops in baseball, leading CC Sabathia by a full 12 innings. He hasn't thrown less than six innings in any start this season and averages a shade under 7.5 innings per start.
- Verlander's run support average: 4.80. That's 42nd in the AL.
- Perhaps most importantly, his record after a Tigers loss is insane. Verlander is now 14-3 starting a game after the Tigers lose.
The consensus AL MVP candidates seem to be Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury (some also throw in Dustin Pedroia) from the Red Sox and Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays. A distant fourth is former Tiger Curtis Granderson of the Yankees. Here's how each of those guys break down (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage)
Gonzalez, BOS: .348/.409/.545, 92 RBI, 18 HR
Ellsbury, BOS: .313/.368/.516, 78 RBI, 22 HR
Pedroia, BOS: .305/.395/.473, 62 RBI 16 HR
Granderson, NYY: .273/.367/.578, 94 RBI, 33 HR
Bautista, TOR: .314/.453/.632, 79 RBI, 35 HR
Let's start off by throwing two of the Red Sox out of the race right off the bat: Pedroia and Ellsbury. While their numbers are good, MVP-caliber they are not, especially when the guy that's leading the race is also on their team. Detroit's own Jhonny Peralta (.308/.352/.496, 63 RBI, 16 HR) has comparable numbers, but I don't hear him being involved in any MVP conversations. And he's probably only the fourth best hitter on the Tigers.
That narrows it down to Gonzalez, Bautista and Granderson. While his average is subpar, Granderson leads the league in RBI and is second to Bautista in homers, so he should at least remain in the conversation, though he's probably not the front-runner.
Now let's consider Verlander's numbers against these other three: 18-5, 2.35 ERA, 202 IP, 204 strikeouts and a ridiculous WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) of 0.88. I'd say he deserves to at least be in the conversation, too.
The last pitcher that won an AL MVP was reliever Dennis Eckersley in 1992, when he went 7-1 and saved 51 games for the Athletics. But Eckersley was a closer, not a starter like Verlander.
Rather, to get someone of equal comparison, you have to go all the way back to 1986 when Roger Clemens went 24-4 with a 2.38 ERA for the Red Sox. He's the last starting pitcher
(actually, the only other pitcher, period) to win an AL MVP. Note: this is not completely true. There have been other pitchers to win the AL MVP but he's still the last starting pitcher to win the AL MVP.
With less than 10 starts left in his season, Verlander may end up replicating or even surpassing that feat by Clemens. ESPN's current projection is that Verlander will finish 2011 with a 24-7 record with 271 strikeouts, keeping his 2.31 ERA and 0.88 WHIP intact. That is about on par or above what Clemens accomplished back in 1986.
The most important thing working in Verlander's favor is his value to the Tigers. A common question people ask in MVP races is would the team be where it is without said player? In Verlander's case, the answer is obvious: hell no. Without Verlander taking the mound every five days, the Tigers are probably a third place -- or worse -- team at best. His 14 wins after a Tigers loss accumulate 21 percent of the team's total wins on the year (his 18 wins overall are 27 percent of the win total -- that's more than a fourth).
Verlander's wins above replacement (WAR, the number of wins a player added over a replacement player like a Triple-A call-up) says it all. According to Baseball Reference he's tops in the AL with a 6.6 WAR for pitchers, and a 6.5 among all players in the AL, second only to Bautista's 6.8. And honestly, I think that's shortchanging him a bit.
When you put that in the context of the other three players (Bautista, Granderson and Gonzalez), the only one that really competes is Bautista. Without him, the Jays are nowhere close to .500 on the season. Gonzalez is having a monster year, but he also has a lot of help on the Red Sox. Same goes for Granderson with all those hard-hitting Yankees teammates.
Verlander doesn't have that kind of help, at least in the rotation.
While the rotating door in the bottom half of the rotation hasn't helped the Tigers' case for a divisional crown, it actually helps Verlander's case for an MVP. Currently, Doug Fister and Brad Penny occupy those two spots. Fister has been decent since he was acquired from Seattle, and that's about all you can ask for from a fifth starter. Penny has struggled recently and has given up at least four runs in his last four starts.
But that is to be somewhat expected from those two. The real problem lately has been the inconsistency in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots, currently held by Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. Both have accumulated double-digit wins on the season, but they both get a ton of run support (8.25 for Scherzer and 7.36 for Porcello per nine innings pitched). Porcello had a sizzling July but has given up 17 runs in three August starts. Scherzer won his last start but gave up five runs and hasn't won more than twice in a row since he won three straight times in June.
It's for that reason I believe Verlander is going to win the Cy Young and should be in the mix for the MVP. Verlander has basically had to pitch the whole year without having a consistent No. 2 guy behind him, hence all the wins after losses. Weaver has Dan Haren backing him up in Los Angeles, Josh Beckett has Jon Lester in Boston, Cleveland now has Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson and Alexi Ogando has C.J. Wilson in Texas.
Now, I know what you're thinking: "But Ryan, just a few weeks ago you wrote the Tigers shouldn't trade for a starting pitcher!" Well, sort of. I said they shouldn't break the bank to get someone like Jimenez because they would have had to give up too much to get him and Porcello and Scherzer were pitching well enough. I still think Scherzer and Porcello are good enough to get them through the division. My point is that it's not up to par with some of the 1-2 tandems other teams have.
Case in point: The Tigers' team ERA -- even with Verlander's sparkling mark -- is only good enough for 11th in the AL. Take away Verlander's 23 quality starts (six innings pitched with no more than three earned runs) and Detroit is easily near the bottom of the league in that category.
The Tigers are basically the only team at or near top of their division without two All-Star caliber starters in the pitching rotation.* The only other team than can claim this -- surprisingly -- is the Yankees with no real star behind Sabathia.
Going back to his share of the team's wins, Verlander's comrades in the starting rotation have won a shade over 50 percent of the teams' games (compared to Verlander's 27 percent by himself; the bullpen owns the other 23 percent). That's split between five different pitchers (Phil Coke, Penny, Fister, Scherzer and Porcello).**
Without Verlander, the Tigers are nowhere near contention.
Verlander doesn't have the luxury of another All-Star to count on for wins. He takes the mound pretty much every night knowing he has to deliver or the Tigers don't stay in first place. That makes Verlander pretty darned valuable. Hopefully the voters will see that he's most valuable.
*I know, Masterson and Jimenez weren't All-Stars, but they're still pretty damn good.
**Charlie Furbush, Andy Oliver, Duane Below and Jacob Turner also have started games this year but none were able to win any starts.