Verlander’s strong starts, revisited

With Justin Verlander’s unanimous selection as the AL Cy Young Award winner, it seems like a good time to revisit an article written on Aug. 3 exploring how dominant Verlander had been at the start of games.

On July 31, Verlander took a no-hit bid into the eighth inning, marking the third time he had accomplished that feat in his first 24 starts. Using a calculation described in the aforementioned article, it was determined that Verlander’s season up until that point already ranked as the fifth-best “strong start” season since 1960. With his performance projected over the remaining schedule, he would have passed two different Nolan Ryan seasons on his way to assuming the title of “semi-arbitrarily-chosen-best-pitcher-at-starting-strongly-since-1960.” (Sadly, even in the acronym-rich sabermetric community, it seems unlikely that ‘SACBPASSS60’ will ever appear on a FanGraphs page.)

In the comments section of the first article, Dave Studeman predicted that Verlander was due for some “regression to the mean.” Unfortunately for Verlander and Tigers fans, this observation turned out to be quite astute. In his first 24 games, Verlander started the game with a no-hit first inning 17 times (71 percent of starts), surrendering four lead-off hits along the way (17 percent). However, in his final 10 games he started with a no-hit first inning only four times (40 percent) while allowing five leadoff hits (50 percent), including two leadoff home runs. Most telling of all, Verlander took a no-hit bid into the fourth inning a whopping eight times in his first 24 starts, but didn’t accomplish this even once in his final 10.

Obviously Verlander still had a spectacular season, but these results hint at the more general point that Verlander dropped off in the final 10 games of the regular season. Here are his more traditional splits over these time periods:

ERA BA against WHIP W-L Avg. run support Games w/ run support 3+
Games 1-24 2.24 0.186 0.867 “15-5″ 4.2 18 (75%)
Games 25-34 2.83 0.208 1.057 “9-0″ 5.5 10 (100%)

The dropoff, though noticeable, was largely masked by the improvement of the Tigers offense and the resulting win streak. Nevertheless, that a 2.83 ERA and 1.057 WHIP can be considered a dropoff is a testament to just how dominant he was in those first 24 games.

Ultimately, Verlander’s 2011 season passed Sandy Koufax’s 1963 season to settle in at No. 4 on the post-1960 list, an impressive—if not historic—finish.

“Dropoff” or no, Justin Verlander’s 2011 season was exceptional, and looking at how strongly he started games is just one more way of demonstrating this. If he is able to carry this stellar play into next season (and get a bit of luck along the way) this time next year we might be seriously discussing whether he has a shot at Ryan’s record seven career no-hitters. More importantly, if he continues to show similarities to Ryan’s career, we can only hope that in one of his starts against the White Sox next season, the opposing manager finds reason to charge the mound.

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