Last night in Cleveland, Justin Verlander made his final start of 2010. His stuff was outstanding and he located his big curveball for called strikes. He gave up seven hits and ended up allowing four runs in seven innings, but there was something else.
Verlander did something in that game that was as impressive as anything I’ve seen this year, a year that’s been full of excellent pitching. After getting the first out of the seventh inning, he loaded the bases with two singles and a walk. He then faced Cleveland left-handed hitters Trevor Crowe and Shin-Soo Choo. He knew this was going to be his last inning of the year, and he struck out both of them, on his last eight pitches of a game total of 121. Seven of those last eight pitches were fastballs ranging from 99 to 102 mph.
The impressive performance capped off another terrific season, and while he will not win the Cy Young Award this year, he’s probably closer than many think.
His ERA (3.37) is good enough to rank among the top 10 best starters in the American League. However, it is about a full run higher than that of 2010 leaders Felix Hernandez (2.27) and Clay Buchholz (2.33). He’s among league leaders in wins, but so are CC Sabathia, Phil Hughess, David Price and Jon Lester. He ranks highly in WHIP (1.16), but not as high as Hernandez and Weaver. He is topping 200 strikeouts for the second straight season, but Weaver, Hernandez and Lester should all finish ahead of him.
While he clearly has posted another great year, most measures Cy Young voters will likely use put the Detroit Tigers pitcher just outside of serious consideration.
On the other hand, a couple of advanced metrics actually rate Verlander as not just lurking on the outer edge of the league’s best pitchers for 2010, but rather right in the middle of them.
Verlander’s Fielder Independent Pitching is 2.98. FIP is a metric designed to focus more on what a pitcher actually controls. In other words, batted balls and defense are taken out of the equation. Verlander’s FIP is very competitive with the mainstream Cy Young candidates this season. In fact, he’s as good as anyone beside Cliff Lee and Francisco Liriano. The latter has also had a season that, while terrific, has been slightly under the radar as far as Cy Young talk goes.
Verlander also compares favorably to Lee, Liriano and Hernandez in Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement.
Verlander’s getting a lot of love in some of the advanced metrics, like FIP, because he’s keeping a few extra fly balls in the park this year. Some of that may be attributed to luck, as his 5.6 percent HR/FB rate is a little below his career average, which is also a little below league average, by the way. But, while he may have had some additional flies stay in the park and help his numbers, his 41 percent groundball rate is up five points from last year, so I’ll give him a little credit for posting such a strong number.
His difference in ERA this year, most notably from contemporaries like Buchholtz and Hernandez (while besting them both in FIP), may just mean those guys have a little better defense behind them or that a few extra balls have fallen in the gaps on Justin.
About a month ago, Verlander says he finally got a good feel for his curveball. His results in September have shown what a difference getting a feel for his curve makes, as he’s struck out 51 batters and allowed only six walks in September.
Fangraphs shows that Verlander has also started replacing some of his fastballs with sliders this year. He started working that fourth pitch in last season, perhaps at the expense of his change-up, throwing it 2.3 percent of the time. That number is up to 7.0% this year and is quickly becoming yet another reliable option to keep batters off balance. I first read about Verlander toying with this fourth pitch here last season, and I think that author’s suspicion about the Tiger ace adding a fourth pitch is certainly confirmed now that Verlander is liking the slider enough to use it in place of his dominant fastball more often.
Verlander has followed up his amazing 2009 season in fine manner, and while his strong finish this year has him just outside Cy Young discussion, his past two seasons mean he should seriously contend in 2011. Had Zack Greinke not been so otherworldly last year, Verlander may have already earned the award. In fact, Verlander’s 2009 looks like it could have been even better if a few things had gone his way. For some reason he held batters to only a 36 percent GB/FB rate, a number quite a bit lower than his 41.4 percent career average going into last year. He struck out 269 batters in 240 innings. His WAR ranked just behind Greinke.
Now, Verlander wasn’t ignored last year: He finished third in voting. Had he repeated his 2009 K rate this year, he may have forced his way into the debate instead of relying on me to build a haphazard case for him.
Justin Verlander has pitched well enough to be in the discussion for 2010 Cy Young consideration. He’s been just shy of Lee and Hernandez in WAR this season, but has outperformed Buchholz, Price and Sabathia by a good margin. Another year of durability and success under his belt and the addition of a reliable fourth pitch may take him from Cy Young also-ran to Cy Young winner soon.