Was Justin Verlander exceptionally "lucky" last year, when he won the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards? And is his "luck" due to turn bad this year? Your answers to those questions depend on whether you believe in the randomness of what happens when a hitter puts a ball in play -- measured by batting average on balls in play against a pitcher -- or the skill of locating pitches well enough to keep them off the barrel of a hitter's bat. You should have no problem guessing to which camp Verlander ascribes.
"I don't pay much attention to those things," Verlander said about advanced statistics. "What matters to me are strikeouts. People may say I got lucky last year on balls in play, but that's not what happened. I can tell you I located a lot better last year. Putting pitches where I wanted them, and not leaving them where a hitter can barrel them up, was the biggest difference."
Verlander has allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play over his career. But last year that number dropped to .237, the second-lowest average among starting pitchers. (Jeremy Hellickson of Tampa Bay owned the lowest such mark: .223.) Verlander (24-5, 2.40 ERA, 250 strikeouts) won the pitching triple crown and became the seventh starter to win the Cy and MVP awards in the same season, the first to do so since Roger Clemens in 1986. Interestingly, Clemens had almost identical BABIP numbers to those of Verlander: .286 career and .238 in his Cy/MVP season. Clemens pitched another 21 seasons and his BABIP never again was as low as it was in 1986.
A low BABIP is often written off to the vagaries of luck -- one of those seasons where an inordinately large number of balls in play found fielders' gloves rather than not. The thinking is that a pitcher cannot control what happens once a ball is put in play.
Verlander, on the other hand, believes that pitching to "soft" contact (balls not squared up) is a skill, and is in fact somewhat under the control of the pitcher. Indeed, Verlander, whether aware of them or not, has his own statistics from 2011 to support his theory that he located better last season. His walk rate was a career low, and the percentage of line drives hit against him also was a career low.
What BABIP cannot tell you about Verlander is how he changed as a pitcher last season. About a month into the season, Verlander throttled back his velocity early in games -- "except when I got runners on base and really needed an out," he said. By conserving effort and velocity, Verlander was able to locate better and maintain his stuff -- actually, to improve it -- as he went deep into games. An avid golfer, Verlander learned long ago that less effort and sacrificing distance improved his game on the course. A similar approach on the mound brought him better results.
In truth, writing off BABIP as pure luck is as sloppy and misguided as writing it off as pure skill. A blend of luck and the human element is at play. Take Greg Maddux, for instance. He was a very different pitcher than Clemens, but had the exact same career BABIP as Clemens (.286). And yet when he was at his best, Maddux probably took luck out of play more than any other pitcher, because his movement and command were spectacularly good. While BABIP tends to fluctuate from year to year -- there's the luck factor at work -- for eight straight years in his prime (1991-98) Maddux posted BABIP numbers below his career mark.
What does all this mean for Verlander in 2012? His numbers are likely to be worse, even slightly, if only because the ones he posted last year were extraordinary. As a road map to see where he might be headed, let's use the "after" seasons of the six other starting pitchers to pull off the Cy/MVP double: Clemens; Vida Blue (who won the hardware in 1971); Bob Gibson and Denny McLain (1968); Sandy Koufax (1963); and Don Newcombe (1956). Of that group, only Koufax actually lowered his ERA in the year after his Cy/MVP season. The other five saw their ERAs rise by an average of three-quarters of a run.
What about BABIP? It's likely to go up this year for Verlander. Here are the BABIP for the six previous Cy/MVP starters in their big year and what happened in the "after" season:
In every case the BABIP went up. In half the cases the BABIP never again was as low as it was in that monster season.
You might be tempted to think that Verlander's BABIP will increase if only because Miguel Cabrera will be Detroit's third baseman this season. Cabrera is expected to get to fewer balls than did Brandon Inge, who played 99 games there last year. But you have to keep in mind that Verlander rarely relies on his third baseman to make plays.
Verlander made 34 starts last year. His third basemen fielded fewer balls in play (71) than any position on the field except first base and catcher. Of those 71 chances, 19 were pop-ups. Let's assume that Cabrera can catch pop-ups as well as Inge or anybody else. Now you're down to 52 plays in 34 starts -- 1.5 plays per game. One or two grounders per start. That's it.
Jason Heyward, then 20, with no big league experience, was the best player in the Atlanta Braves camp in 2010, and for that reason manager Bobby Cox put him on the Opening Day roster. This year, 19-year-old Bryce Harper is trying to convince Nationals manager Davey Johnson to do the same with him.
Keep this in mind, though: If the Nationals keep Harper on the Opening Day roster, he would be on schedule to hit free agency after the 2017 season, at age 24. Imagine that bidding war. If they keep him in the minors until at least late April -- letting 20 days on assignment expire to keep him from accruing a full year of major league service time -- the Nationals gain another year of control of Harper.
(To keep Harper from getting four arbitration-eligible seasons rather than the customary three -- the "Super Two" service advantage -- they'd have to keep him in the minors until mid-June.)
The cold reality is that the Nationals can trade three weeks of Harper's age-19 season to gain control of Harper's entire age-25 season. (Of course, the Nationals and Harper want a long-term relationship, so neither side is planning an exit strategy. But remember, when signing young players to contract extensions, clubs have to pay more to buy out free agent-eligible seasons than arbitration-eligible seasons, so there is an added cost associated with when free agency begins, even when a player doesn't leave.)
I have to admit, I loved Johnson's answer when I asked him about how the issue of starting Harper's major league service clock affects his chance to make the team. He twisted his face into a sour look and spat out, "I don't give a [bleep] about that."
In 1985 as manager of the Mets, Johnson won a battle with GM Frank Cashen to put 19-year-old Dwight Gooden on the Opening Day roster.
As it relates to Harper, Johnson did explain his concerns from a manager's perspective on putting together an Opening Day roster. Johnson believes strongly in stocking a National League bench with useful veteran parts, especially veterans who hit elite relief pitching late in games, not just defensive or running specialists. The Nationals have several non-roster players in camp whom Johnson likes, especially outfielders Rick Ankiel, Brett Carroll and Jason Michaels and infielder Chad Tracy.
If the Nationals keep Harper, it takes away a potential veteran bat on the bench. And if Harper should struggle and is returned to the minors for more seasoning, that veteran bat already has been lost, because he was cut loose to find work somewhere else. Even for three weeks in the minors, Harper gives the Nationals a bigger inventory of major-league caliber players.
"It's not just about taking the best 25 guys," Johnson said. "Sometimes it's about the best 28 or 29 guys."
Harper, meanwhile, while not yet displaying his power in games, has been impressive with his work ethic, baserunning, defense and throwing. He has beaten out a rather routine grounder to third base and chased down balls in center field, where Johnson gave him a start to take advantage of his athleticism. He also has toned down the movement in his swing -- though not the violence of it. Harper tucks his hands lower and closer to his body.
"Why? Because when you're 1 for 20 in the Arizona Fall League, it's time to make an adjustment," he said. "That's when I started it, and I felt comfortable with it pretty much right away."
Remember that grand news conference more than three months ago, when the owners and players shook hands on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement? There is one catch: Clubs still don't have the actual working document. The clubs did receive a summary of the major points -- the document is massive and is still being fine-tuned -- but as one executive said, "We're working under a new set of rules, and we still don't have all the administrative rules in front of us."
Four or five years from now, this CBA will have wrought a host of unintended consequences, largely because of changes to the draft, international signings and free-agent compensation. The caps on draft spending, in particular, will have far-reaching effects even beyond those that were intended (reducing the advantage that big-market teams might have had when it came to spending on amateur talent).
When the NFL went to its hard cap system, it spawned the specialty trade of "capologists," and those teams that dedicated the best and brightest to study the CBA for loopholes and advantages gained an edge over others who were not as quick to adapt. The race will be on for the same early adapters in baseball.
Teams already are thinking of ways to game the CBA's cap on draft bonuses. For instance, teams can no longer give major league contracts to drafted players. But what if you reach an agreement with the player to sign him to a minor league slot deal but also to bring him to the majors almost immediately? Even if you send him back to the minors, you have effectively handed out a major league contract to a draft pick. And about that slotting system... What if you signed a player at slot, released him, and signed him back to a contract -- as a free agent (wink, wink) -- that is well above slot?
There is no doubt that the commissioner's office will be vigilant about upholding the spirit of the rules and not just the letter of the rules. But I can tell you that I already have heard those creative ideas and more from the clubs as they try to figure out what will be a wild new game when it comes to acquiring talent. The first thing they'll need, though, is the actual rule book for this game.