Tuesday November 15th, 2011

That Justin Verlander was just named the unanimous American League Cy Young award winner should surprise no one who was paying any kind of attention to major league baseball this season. Verlander was the clear choice for the award after a season in which he won the pitching triple crown with the AL lead in wins (24), strikeouts (250) and ERA (2.40), while also leading the major leagues in the first two of those categories as well as in innings (251), WHIP (0.92), ERA+ (170), and fewest hits allowed per nine innings (6.2).

The number that jumped out at people the most was his wins total. Verlander was the first American Leaguer to win as many as 24 games since Bob Welch won 27 in 1990. In the intervening 20 seasons, no pitcher won more, and only two future Hall of Famers in the National League, John Smoltz in 1996 and Randy Johnson in 2002, won as many.

It's still early in Verlander's career -- he'll be 29 in February as he prepares for his seventh full season -- but he is very much on pace to be a future Hall of Famer himself, and this award is a big reason why. After six seasons, Verlander has made four All-Star teams, won the Rookie of the Year award (and is now the first AL Rookie of the Year to later win the Cy Young), was the ace of a pennant-winning staff in 2006, threw a no-hitter and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting in 2007, and over the last three years has averaged a 20-8 record with a 3.06 ERA (140 ERA+) and 246 strikeouts in 238 innings. He has also finished in the top three in the voting twice, winning once, and added a second career no-hitter. It's very possible that what we just witnessed was nothing less than the best season in a Hall of Fame career.

Recent Cy Young votes have properly recognized that pitching wins are a vastly overrated statistic, but Verlander's dominance went far deeper than just his record. His WHIP, walks plus hits per innings pitched, was the 16th-best in the liveball era (dating back to 1920), and eight of the others ahead of him were recorded during the pitching-dominated era of 1963 to 1968, when the rule book strike zone was at its largest and before the mound was lowered.

Verlander is also now the first American League pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter and go on to win the Cy Young in the same season since the award's creation in 1956. Verlander threw his second career no-hitter on May 7 in Toronto. In that game, he allowed just one baserunner and faced the minimum 27 batters while throwing just 108 pitches.

The heart of Verlander's season began three weeks later, when he threw 7 2/3 scoreless innings at home against the Red Sox kicking off a streak of nine starts in which he pitched at least seven innings and allowed no more than two runs, earned or otherwise, every time out. Verlander went 8-1 with a 0.75 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, and 7.40 K/9 over those nine starts, which included three double-digit strikeout games, including a 12-K shutout of the Indians that broke a tie between Cleveland and Detroit atop the AL Central standings, and, two turns later, 14 Ks in eight scoreless innings against the eventual NL West champion Diamondbacks. Though Verlander's season ended with a dud outing and a disappointing playoff performance, in his last 22 starts leading up to his last start of the regular season, he went 20-2 with a 1.75 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and 171 strikeouts in 165 innings.

Verlander became just the fourth man since integration to win the pitching triple crown in the American League, joining Roger Clemens, who did it in 1997 and '98, Pedro Martinez (1999) and Johan Santana (2006), and it is within the context of the designated-hitter league that his season shines brightest. To begin with, Verlander's 0.92 WHIP ranks second only to Pedro Martinez's single-season record of 0.74 in 2000 among all qualified pitchers in the AL since 1973, the first season of the DH. Over that span, the only AL pitcher to match Verlander's streak of nine consecutive starts with at least seven innings pitched and no more than two runs allowed was Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, who had a streak of nine such starts in 1975 and 10 in 1974.

In fact, Verlander's 2011 season ranks solidly among the best seasons ever by a pitcher in the DH league, as seen in this list of the top 10 years as ranked by Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement:

That isn't necessarily a definitive measure and one could easily quibble with these rankings, but I think most would agree that the above list does a good job of gathering up the best American League pitching seasons from the last 39 years, and it plants Verlander right in the middle of that top 10. That said, Verlander's bWAR total, which is tied for sixth above, is as close to 17th as it is to fifth, and there are strong arguments to be made that Martinez's 1999 season and Guidry's 1978, especially, were better. (Note that WAR is cumulative, so Martinez suffers a bit due to his low innings totals -- just 213 1/3 in 1999, the lowest on this list -- while Blyleven's criminally underrated 1973 season is lifted by his tremendous 325 innings.)

Amazingly, three of the seasons above did not net their authors the Cy Young award. Welch's 27 wins overshadowed Clemens' dominance in 1990, and Fidrych had to settle for the Rookie of the Year award while Jim Palmer took home his third Cy Young in four years in 1976, but at least Clemens and Fidrych finished second in the voting. In 1973, the year Palmer won his first trophy, Blyleven received just one third-place vote and finished in a three-way tie for seventh.

It's also worth noting is that none of the pitchers listed above won the Most Valuable Player award in their dominant season. That could change come Monday, given Verlander's strong candidacy to become the first starting pitcher since Clemens in 1986 to win that honor. I'll have more on his chances on Friday, but for now, it is sufficient to say that whether he wins the MVP or not, Verlander's season is one that should never be forgotten and one might someday earn a bit of space on a plaque in Cooperstown.

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