Verlander dragging the Tigers to top of AL Central

The last time we checked in on the American League Central race, the Indians led the division by a good margin with a plus-35 run differential, the Twins were left for dead, and the Tigers were the only other team within striking distance.

Detroit was the only AL Central team not from Cleveland without a losing record, but the Tigers were sitting right at .500 at the time. But as is always the case when your number-one starter has only 12 starts under his belt, it was early. And now things are getting back to normal, at least for the most part.

The Kansas City Royals purchased a one-way ticket to Terribleville—where they live—having, prior to Sunday, lost six of 10, 14 of 20 and 19 of 30. They are what we thought they would be (but at least some of their future has arrived).

On the other side of the coin, the Twins have done quite the opposite in winning seven of 10, 11 of 20 and 19 of 30, then winning again on Sunday. And run differential wise, they’ve been +23 since we last checked in, improving to “just” -67, but a far cry from the -90 they had on May 31. They’re the only team in this division making a move, and they’re sitting just 6.5 games back with plenty of baseball to go.

The White Sox are vanilla-flavored boring—aside from their skipper, that is—and five back with a -17 run differential, as their winter “splash,” Adam Dunn, has flopped. And their mid-season acquisition from a few years ago, Alex Rios, remains now what he was then, a bad idea. They’ve been mildly successful of late, having won 16 of 30, but they’ve merely split their past 10.

As for the divisions’ two best teams, the Indians and Tigers, well, neither of the two seem interested in (or capable of) running away with the thing. Coming into Sunday, the last game before the All-star break, Detroit had split their last 10, last 20 and last 30 games, respectively.

The Indians had won six of 10 prior to the first-half finale, but they’d also split their past 20 and were two under in their past 30 contests. To solidify their meteor-like pace toward the pack, they lost Sunday and fell half a game back of the Tigers.

Though the two are the best the division has to offer so far, neither the Tigers (-8) or Indians (+4) are inspiring much in the score-more-than-your-opponents department.

In aggregate, the division has been one of baseball’s worst with a -135 run differential. And, oddly, the very team that was being scraped off the tarmac as road kill six weeks ago is the only team asserting itself in the division. Under my previous post, a comment suggested it’s “hard to ever count out the Twins,” to which I replied: “Not this year.” With just fewer than 80 ballgames to go, I might have been dead wrong. Somehow it still feels relatively early.

That said, we learned from Buster Olney this morning (ESPN Insider) that the Twins have the third-toughest schedule among the AL’s remaining contenders, while the Indians and Tigers seemingly have the easiest road ahead. The Indians play 25 more games with teams currently over .500 while the Tigers have just 23. The Twins have 41.

Just maybe, when I come back in about six weeks to update you further on the AL Central race, the Twins will have officially resurrected themselves against all odds, and I’ll spill a bit more ink on them. Until then.

A one-man arm-y

Even if it doesn’t seem that any of the teams wants the AL Central crown, it doesn’t mean that some of the players don’t. And no player has tried to push his team in the right direction more than Justin Verlander.

On May 31, the date of my last writing on this division, Verlander was 5-3, and the Tigers had won just six of his 12 starts. He’d pitched well by all accounts with a 3.12 ERA, but he hadn’t been spectacular, though he did already have a no-hitter under his belt. He had a strikeout rate of 7.89 per nine innings, 2.39 free passes per nine and he’d given up too many home runs (0.93/9 IP).

But over the past eight starts, most of which took place in June? He’s been spectacular. Verlander has whiffed 9.93 per nine, walked just 1.12 per nine and given up fewer long balls with a rate of .42 home runs per nine. Across eight starts and 64.1 innings, Verlander has given up just six runs for a 0.84 ERA. Both he and the Tigers are 7-1 in those eight games, the only loss coming in a 1-0 defeat to the Angels.

Unsurprisingly, Verlander was selected to represent the Junior Circuit for the Mid-Summer Classic in sunny Arizona, though he won’t get a chance to pitch, as his start Sunday puts him on the ineligible list.

It’s a good thing he pitched for the Tigers this Sunday, too, because Verlander, with another gem, spun the Tigers into first place with a 7.2-inning, one-run (zero earned) masterpiece to defeat the Royals. He struck out nine and walked zero, while Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde put the finishing touches on the game.

Verlander’s stats in 2011 have put him squarely in the AL Cy Young race, an award he’s not yet won—he came closest in 2009 with a third-place finish. Before Sunday, according to baseball-reference, Verlander had been worth 5.0 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), or nearly a full win better than his entire 2010 season. That’s not only tops in the AL for 2011 (and tied with Roy Halladay for the Major League lead), but it’s also just 1.2 wins off Felix Hernandez‘s 6.2 wins from 2010.

According to FanGraphs, with its fielding independent pitching (FIP) -based (and far less run-based) system, Verlander has been worth 4.0 wins. His 8.67 K/9 shows he’s striking out plenty of batters this season, and his 1.95 BB/9 would be a career best for the hurler. So, too, would the 4.45 strikeouts per walk (K/BB). His 2.83 FIP is fifth-best in the AL, behind only Jered Weaver, CC Sabathia, Dan Haren, and last season’s AL Cy Young winner, Hernandez.

And Verlander doesn’t lead the AL in just WAR, as he’s also the main man with bold black ink splashed on his B-R page while leading the AL in innings tossed, total strikeouts and WHIP (walks plus hits per nine innings) with a ridiculous mark of 0.879.

His start on Sunday stood only to improve him in each and every one of these categories, as his ERA went from 2.26 down to 2.15, for example.

It’s no secret how he does it. Verlander has coupled his blazing four-seam fastball, which hasn’t wavered at all in his roughly six seasons, with impeccable control this season. In fact, his average 95.2 heater doesn’t vary much in the late innings, either, as it often registers higher in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings than at the game’s outset.

Verlander doesn’t really have a nickname, but The Specimen might be an apt one. His height, weight, mechanics, and, of course, the Howitzer attached to his right shoulder, are the stuff scouts’ careers are made of. He’s relentless with that fastball, and hitters probably have nightmares thinking about the fact that he couples it with a buckling, 12-6 hammer. And that’s to say nothing about an extremely effective changeup he throws nearly as often as the curveball and a slider he mixes in, too.

Trouble is, despite all of Verlander’s efforts, only the smelly staffs of the Orioles and Royals have given up more runs in the American League.

Scoring runs isn’t the Tigers’ problem

On the run scoring side of things, it’s business as usual for sweet-swinging slugger Miguel Cabrera. As far as AL hitters go—at least the top three guys—there’s the non-human Jose Bautista (.486 weighted on-base average or wOBA), the flourishing-in-cozy-Fenway Adrian Gonzalez (.427 wOBA), and the steady-as-ever Cabrera (.420 wOBA).

If you throw some park effects at this three-man race, Cabrera likely would overtake Gonzalez considering his away wOBA is .450 to the .386 he carries in spacious Comerica Park.

However, Gonzalez does have him licked defensively. and that certainly counts, as does base running (to say nothing of positional scarcity). That’s why Cabrera gets leap-frogged by 11 players in WAR, including Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez and others. But in terms of purely having a fearsome bat in your lineup, you could hardly go wrong with Cabrera. His .315/.435/.556 (average/on-base percentage/slugging) line is fantastic while hitting 18 balls out and driving in 59, scoring 63.

Alongside Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta has been a revelation at shortstop (.384 wOBA, 3.3 WAR), as has catcher Alex Avila (.378 wOBA, 2.6 WAR). Meanwhile, Brennan Boesch has followed up his quality 2010 season, in which he finished fifth in AL Rookie of the Year voting, with an even better 2011. He’s hitting .306/.362/.494 for a .370 wOBA and 2.4 WAR at the break. And Victor Martinez (.359 wOBA) has more or less held up his end of the bargain (or contract), at least this season.

This contingent has the Tigers with the fifth-best offense in the AL going into the break. Clearly, they’re not the reason the Tigers are having difficulty scoring more runs than they are giving up, separating themselves from the rest of the pack, and positioning themselves as the alpha male in the Central.

But if the Tigers can grab an arm or two before the July 31 deadline, they’re probably well-positioned to take the division. I’ll take the team with Cabrera in the middle of the lineup and Verlander throwing every fifth day.

Of course, though I wouldn’t have dreamed of saying this just six weeks ago, they shouldn’t sleep on the Minnesota Twins. Joe Mauer (and a mending Justin Morneau) are, as always it seems, lurking. And the Indians ought to give them a spirited run for their money, too.

It’s not the best division in baseball, as that’s reserved for the AL Beast. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t one heck of an exciting one.

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Comments

  1. Paul Francis Sullivan said...

    Is it wrong that I think that Verlander is making a case for MVP?

    I’m not one of those people who think that a pitcher CAN’T be MVP. Hershiser should have won it in 1988, Maddux should have won it in 1995 and of course Pedro Martinez should have won it in 1999

    Not saying Verlander IS the MVP… but he’s presenting a case

  2. sloww2go said...

    I think Verlander can win the MVP, if he continues to carry this team the way he has been and they win the AL Central division. However its more likely that IF the tigers do win the AL central, they will need better pitching from the rest of their staff, thus making Verlander less of a candidate for the award. Of course if the Tigers do not win the AL Central and Verlander still dominates the way he has, there is no chance of him winning the MVP. Of course a Cy Young award is a nice consilation prize.

  3. Paapfly said...

    If he continues to pitch the way he has…. Sure, he’ll have a case. I just don’t know if his current hot streak is sustainable and a real change in him, or just that, a hot streak. I tend to think it’s probably the former, that he can’t possibly continue to dominate at this level. A Cy Young award seems very possible at this point, though, no question.

    Whether he deserves it or not, he’ll likely not win it. When was the last pitching MVP, anyway?

    I sort of think theyi should just eliminate the pitchers from contention, as the Cy Young was partly created to give the pitchers their own MVP. Or else, create another award for just hitters to compete for and then see of more pitchers start winning the MVP.

    Maybe that’s a silly idea. I don’t know.

    CC Sabathia is having a hell of a year. But I guess you can also make the argument that he’s been less “valuable” to his team because they’re THE YANKEES.

    I don’t like the distinction though. Best pitcher. Best hitter. That’s how I’d vote it.

  4. Paul Francis Sullivan said...

    It is tough to make a case that Ozzie Smith is the best pitcher in the league

    But sometimes the most valuable is a pitcher.

    I appreciate the effort. But the logic is flawed

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