Justin Verlander has been other-worldly lately. A robot, really. Not just good for this year. He’s turning in one of the best pitching seasons in the last 40 years.
Three times he has carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning this season. It’s only happened 11 times in all of baseball this season, and three of those occurrences are at the hand — and powerful right arm — of the flame-throwing 28-year-old Detroit Tigers ace. This becomes especially impressive when you take into account the fact Verlander is the first pitcher to take at least three no-nos into the seventh inning since a certain man named Nolan Ryan.
With all of the pro-CC Sabathia and Jered Weaver talk I’ve heard this season, comprised largely of rhetoric leading with the pair either being “clear cut” favorites above Verlander or at the very least “right in there” for the A.L. Cy Young in a three-horse race, I believe Verlander sits atop that heap in a class by himself.
Let’s take a look at the numbers, but before I get started, a couple of caveats.
Caveat 1: Verlander is tied for the league lead in wins with Sabathia (one ahead of Weaver), and while using this impossible-to-predict and largely out-of-the-pitcher’s-hands statistic to determine the Cy Young is one of the worst pieces of evidence you can consider, at least he’s also satisfying this “criteria” for the old school voters out there.
Caveat 2: Verlander, Sabathia and Weaver are within a half win of Fangraphs’ WAR — or wins above replacement — (CC 5.6, JV 5.5, JW 5.1), so I’ll leave that out of my analysis as it’s statistically a virtual push in terms of not being able to set any one of them apart.
Now, on to why Verlander should be the favorite so far:
Weaver: With a 1.88 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 14 wins through 23 starts, it would be easy to hand the lead over to Weaver. Not so fast. While Weaver has further lowered his walk rate from last year’s career-best 2.17 BB/9 to 2.04 this season, his strikeout rate has regressed back into line with his career average (7.62 K/9 in 2011, 7.79 career rate) and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is over 30 points lower than his previous full-season career low.
After these numbers, you can dig into why his BABIP might be so low and you’ll go no further than a home run rate under half his career clip (0.43 HR/9; 0.92 career rate). Before that’s written off, a glance at his homers allowed per fly ball shows he currently sits at an unsustainable rate of 3.6 percent as compared to his career rate of 7.3 percent. The kicker: Weaver has always been an extreme fly-ball pitcher with a career ground ball percentage of 33.2. Guess where he sits this year? 33.1 percent.
The last, and most important, points working against Weaver are his xFIP, which is essentially his expected ERA independent of fielding factors that can inflate or deflate a pitcher’s raw ERA, and his strand rate. Many pitchers with low ERAs have an xFIP that’s sometimes a point higher than their ERA as a regression should be expected. In Weaver’s case, things look even more grizzly as he has a whopping 3.58 xFIP to go with his miniscule ERA. Weaver’s strand rate — the percentage of runners left on base that don’t score after a pitcher is removed from the game — sits at an astounding (and unsustainable) 83.2 percent, over seven percent higher than his previous full-season high. Simply put, more of Weaver’s base runners are likely to score runs off the Angels’ bullpen than have scored so far.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Weaver is an almost-ace pitcher by hook or by crook, but an extreme fly-ball pitcher with an unsustainably low BABIP, home run rate and homers allowed per fly ball will see his ERA rise as some of those fly balls leave the yard and things start to equalize on the statistical front. Not to mention his ERA will likely also feel the effects of his unmatchable strand rate. Weaver has been very good so far this season, but he’s also been incredibly lucky, and I don’t see him as being any more than the third-best starter in the A.L. when the dust settles.
Sabathia: I came into this process thinking Sabathia would be the third guy on my list (behind Weaver and Verlander), but after looking closer at the numbers, it’s clear the Yankees’ ace deserves to be ahead of Weaver in 2011 Cy considerations. His ERA of 2.56 is fifth in the A.L., and while it’s relatively close to a point higher than Weaver’s, it’s actually a lot closer to where it “should” be. Pitching in that park (Yankee Stadium) in that division (East), Sabathia has managed his numbers by staying much closer to his career clips in a number of categories. His strikeout rate of 8.32 is just a tad higher than his four-year average and he’s cut down his walk rate from 2.8 BB/9 to around 2.4 this season. There will be some signs of regression mentioned below, but not as extreme as Weaver’s.
Through 23 starts this season, Sabathia has posted a BABIP of .289, actually a point higher than his career mark of .288. He has always shown a BABIP near the league average (a tick under .300) and his strand rate of 74.8 percent is right around his career average of 73. Sabathia is actually inducing a few more ground balls these past two years than he had in the past, which will slightly mitigate this next point: the 31-year-old ace also sports some unsustainable home run rates. With a HR/FB rate of 4.2, almost half of his career mark of 8.2, and a silly-low 0.32 HR/9, some of the fly balls hit off Sabathia are also long overdue to leave the yard.
When considering the above factors, it’s also helpful to look at Sabathia’s xFIP to see the difference that sets him apart from Weaver. Sabathia’s xFIP of 3.04, over a half run lower than Weaver’s, is a function of his luck more than anything. Both men share unsustainable home run rates (though Sabathia’s penchant for inducing more ground balls lessens this effect slightly), but the difference between these two is that Sabathia hasn’t been nearly as lucky as Weaver this season, thus why his expected ERA when fielding factors are left out of the equation is half of a marker lower than that of Weaver. Are ERA and xFIP the be-all, end-all of this argument? In a way, yes, but if anything that is because they help explain the differences in what these first two starters have done so far. It both sets them apart from each other and, more importantly, from Mr. Verlander.
Verlander: Where to start? How about the (somewhat) negative? Verlander’s 2.24 ERA is partly a function of a BABIP of .232, in a similar land to that of Weaver and 55 points better than his career pace of .287. Will more of Verlander’s batted balls find holes and eventually lead to more runs against him? Like the two before him on this list, it’s more likely than not. But as we’ve seen above the proof isn’t fully in the BABIP pudding, and what set Sabathia apart from Weaver is similar to what sets Verlander apart from the Yankee’s big man. Verlander’s strikeout rate of 8.85 K/9 is right in line with his numbers from last year (8.79) after a down tick from a career-best 10.09 in 2009.
Unlike the other two, Verlander has actually posted home run rates very much in line with his track record, with his 0.70 HR/9 being just slightly under his career mark of 0.78 and his homer-per-fly-ball percentage of 7.2 being just a tad under his career clip (7.6 percent) — therefore, we shouldn’t expect a larger number of balls to leave the yard going forward like the numbers infer about the other two. Verlander is actually generating more ground ball outs than last season (his second straight improvement in the category), and while his strand rate of 77.6 percent is a few percent higher than his career rate it doesn’t have as far to fall as Weaver’s to return to his average.
The true brilliance of Verlander comes in the form of his walk rate this season. After a marked improvement from 3.9 BB/9 in 2008 to 2.36 in 2009, Verlander took a small step backwards to 2.85 walks per 9 innings last season. This season, however, Verlander is posting a number over a half of a walk per 9 lower than his career best, at 1.79 BB/9 (9th best in MLB and best among true “strikeout pitchers). This is a large factor in Verlander’s 0.8674 WHIP is the 22nd lowest all time among qualified starting pitchers. Only Pedro Martinez (0.7373 in 2000) and Gred Maddux (0.8108 in 1995) have posted better WHIPs than Verlander’s current mark since 1968 (confidentially when three men, Dave McNally, Bob Gibson and Luis Tiant all posted numbers under 0.8711, with the first two besting Verlander’s current rate).
When I see an improvement in walk rate like this and a maintenance/slight rise in strikeout rate, I see a pitcher who’s that much more locked in than the next best guy. Verlander misses more bats than the other guys when it counts (all three are around 10 percent swinging strikes), an indication of his ability to mix his tremendous whole-game-long stuff with his superior pitchability. Will Verlander more likely than not suffer some regressions that make his ERA and other numbers end up in the same ball park as the other two guys? Absolutely. But even if everyone took the predicted statistical steps back across the board, Verlander has been that much better than the other two.
Can something happen in the next 10 starts to change things? Absolutely. But, with a well-oiled robot out there for the Tigers every fifth day, I wouldn’t count on it.
Michael Stephens is an avid sports enthusiast with over 10 years of fantasy experience who writes for the Cafe. He is newspaper sports page designer who hopes to continue fantasy writing as a career in the future. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, he is naturally a die-hard Mariner fan! You can find Michael in the Cafe's forums where he actively posts under the name WaCougMBS.
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