A PITCHER IN HIS PRIME

Justin Verlander is in that career sweet spot—he's young enough to pump 100-mph gas, old enough to know when to throttle back. The result: a season MVP voters can't ignore
September 18, 2011

Let's give credit where it's due," Jim Leyland said on Sept. 2, after he won his 500th game as the manager of the Tigers. "Justin Verlander's got 104 of those." It sounded, at first, like another of the droll bons mots that the 66-year-old Leyland dispenses daily, with a Marlboro Red flaming in his right hand and his stockinged feet propped up on his desk, to the delight of the beat writers in his office—nuggets of wisdom to which the skipper usually appends, "Now, that's just what I think." In this case, though, there was nothing wry or opinionated about Leyland's observation. A check of the records showed that the 28-year-old Verlander, whose rookie season, 2006, coincided with his manager's first in Detroit, had been the winning pitcher in precisely 104 of those 500 victories. Leyland was simply stating a fact.

For most of his major league career, Verlander has excelled at winning games. He has won at least 17 in five of his six full seasons, the only exception coming in 2008 ("A horrible season," he says), when he went 11--17. Between 2006 and last season, only CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay had more victories than Verlander's 84. Never before, however, has Verlander won as consistently as he has in 2011. His game log looks like a feverish attempt to type a Web address on a keyboard with sticky keys. wwwwwww reads Verlander's game log from May 29 to June 30. wwwwwwwwww it reads from July 21 to Sept. 7.

Through Sunday, Verlander's record was 22--5, and with three starts remaining, he had a chance of becoming the first 25-game winner since Bob Welch of the A's went 27--6 in 1990. In recent years the simple statistic of the win—once the be-all and end-all for starters—has become a despised metric among the game's staterati, due to its reliance on a starter's offense to score and on his bullpen to hold leads. Its marginalization as a measure of performance was confirmed last season when the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, deservedly, won the AL Cy Young Award despite a record of 13--12.

Still, reaching the 20-win mark says something; of the 34 pitchers who have won 20 in the past decade, just one, the Yankees' Andy Pettitte in 2003, did so with an ERA above 4.00. "I understand all the arguments," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski says. "The one thing I would always debate is that with a starting pitcher, winning games is extremely important. I've seen guys that pitch well, and they're very talented, with good-looking stats, but if their team scores three for them, they'll give up four. If their team scores two, they give up three."

The fact is that Verlander's gaudy win total has little to do with the support of his teammates. A starter relies less on his offense when he does not require it to score much, and Verlander was at week's end tied with the Angels' Jered Weaver for the lowest ERA (2.44) in the AL. A starter's fate is less dependent on his bullpen when he pitches deep into games, and Verlander led the AL in innings pitched; he is the eighth pitcher since 1920 to last at least six innings in each of his first 31 starts in a season. Moreover, among the majors' 101 qualified starters, he was first in strikeouts (232), first in WHIP (0.91) and first in batting average against (.191).

In other words, Verlander is having a season to please old-school and new-school number crunchers alike—the result, he says, of a long accumulation of knowledge that has suddenly all clicked into place. "It's hard for me to put a finger on what I know, but it's there," he says. "Time. Experience of pitching at this level for a while now. You log it all away, and it opens up a new game to you, almost." This is the sound of a gifted athlete who has just entered his prime.

The 6'5" Verlander's ability to throw a fastball in excess of 100 miles per hour got him drafted by the Tigers second overall out of Old Dominion in 2004, but his recently acquired sense of the optimal moments to throw that pitch has made him the game's premier starter. That his average fastball has slightly decreased in velocity this season, from 95.4 mph to 95.0, is deceiving, explains Leyland. "He's figured out you don't have to go all out, helter-skelter, from pitch one," Leyland says. "If you throw the ball down and away, 92 miles an hour, you'll get a lot of outs."

"If he wanted, he could throw 100 all game," says Verlander's regular catcher, Alex Avila. "He's done that before, and by the sixth inning he's got 100 pitches. Maybe not coming out full throttle from the beginning allows him to get those one-, two-pitch outs, have a little more command, throw a few more strikes."

This season, Verlander has rarely thrown a pitch that reaches the mid-90s in a game's first few innings, saving his triple-digit heat for when it's required. The result is that a pitcher who not so long ago made Little Leaguers in Goochland, Va., cry in the batter's box—not because he threw so hard, but so wildly—is now eighth in the AL in walks per nine innings (2.0, the lowest of his career), allowing him to go deeper into games and to better concentrate on commanding his curveball and his changeup. "I think he's throwing everything for strikes now," says veteran Indians slugger Jim Thome. More than that, the threat of Verlander's best fastball is now as effective as its actual deployment, explains White Sox slugger Paul Konerko. "I think when a guy is throwing from the mid-90s to upper 90s, most hitters are going to gear up for that," says Konerko. "So if he gets anything else over the plate or remotely close, he's going to get a lot of bad swings."

Verlander's maturation will make him this year's AL CY Young winner; that is no longer a matter of debate. The question is whether he will become the first pitcher since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 to be named Most Valuable Player. In recent decades voters have preferred everyday players, a view encapsulated by Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, who says, "There is an MVP for pitchers: It's called the Cy Young Award." That preference led to the Red Sox' Pedro Martinez finishing a close second to Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez in the 1999 AL balloting, despite the fact that Martinez ranked first in the all-encompassing Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic.

As calculated by baseball-reference.com, Verlander's WAR this season trails that of fellow MVP candidate Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays and is just ahead of Boston centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury's. But his value to the first-place Tigers extends to ways difficult for any statistic to count, such as his ability to neatly snuff out losing streaks (he is 15--3 with a 1.53 ERA in starts following a Detroit loss) and to keep the club's relievers fresh to support other starters. ("It's really a two-, three-day effect of what he does for the bullpen," says rotation No. 2 Max Scherzer.) Verlander struggles to hide his desire to be named MVP. "Of course I care about it," he says. "Pitchers are players. It's the Most Valuable Player award." Still, he insists that there is much to be done before his name is or is not called in early November. "Right now, I don't mind talking about it, but there's a lot of other stuff going on," he says.

At 10:15 a.m. sharp on Sept. 7, an hour and 50 minutes before game time, Verlander strode into the visitors clubhouse at Cleveland's Progressive Field wearing large headphones, a tailored plaid vest over a pink dress shirt and an expression that did not invite the establishment of eye contact, let alone conversation. "I don't know if ornery's the right word to describe him on days he's starting, but he's zeroed in," says Leyland. "He's locked into it."

Verlander's focus was on the music he was piping into his skull—he starts with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and then moves on to hard rock, always including the 2008 Shinedown song Second Chance—and on his plan that day for the Indians, which was the same as it is for every team he faces: to no-hit them. "I don't ever go out there thinking, This guy's going to get a hit," he explained the afternoon before. "Therefore, if I'm thinking that, I'm thinking I'm going to throw a no-hitter. It's happened a couple times, and I've come close a few more."

Verlander has thrown two no-hitters, one in 2007 against the Brewers and one in Toronto in May, when he was one walk removed from a perfect game and threw a 100-mph fastball to the game's final batter. A no-hitter would elude him in Cleveland, but his start was in many ways similar to the others he has made this season. He began free and easy, holding back on his fastball in search of quick, outing-extending outs, and he succeeded, retiring the first three hitters on just 14 pitches, none of which topped 93 miles per hour. It was the first of three half-innings in which he threw 14 or fewer pitches, with none over 93. The only hits Verlander allowed in his six innings of work, in fact, came on pitches on which he decided to dial up his velocity—a pair of 96-mph fastballs that Shelley Duncan turned into two-run home runs, and a 97-mph heater that became a Thome double. His 113th and final pitch of the day was his fastest, a 98-mph fastball that struck out Thome to end the sixth, with the Tigers trailing 4--2. But Detroit scored five runs in the top of the seventh, and the game concluded with another tick in Verlander's win column.

The unusually early game time, the sparse and torpid crowd, the intermittently rainy weather, the Tigers' comfortable position in the AL Central (which they led by 10½ games through Sunday)—all of those factors might have helped explain why Verlander wasn't as consistently sharp as he usually is. None of those factors, except perhaps the meteorological one, will be in play on Sept. 30, when Verlander starts Game 1 of the Tigers' opening playoff series against, most likely, the Yankees or the Red Sox. The prospect of facing Verlander twice in a five-game series is unnerving. "It's like the Cliff Lee thing last year with Texas," says Teixeira. "You knew they had a chance to win it all because Lee was going to have a chance to pitch at least twice in every series. Verlander is the same way."

Lee is another pitcher who showed the potential for transcendence early in his career, and who put everything together after he reached his late 20s. He has led his teams, first the Phillies and then the Rangers, to the World Series in each of the past two seasons. It is now Verlander's turn.

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ONCE THE BE-ALL AND END-ALL FOR STARTERS, THE PITCHING VICTORY HAS BEEN BELITTLED AS A STAT. STILL, REACHING THE 20-WIN MARK SAYS SOMETHING.

NOT-SO-HIDDEN BIAS

This year Justin Verlander could be the first pitcher named MVP since Dennis Eckersley won the AL award in 1992. That would be no small feat, considering that in the 36 MVP races after Eck a hurler has even finished in the top five in voting only six times. Here are four starters in that span who, based on the player value metric WAR (Wins Above Replacement), deserved to be MVP—or at least a bigger part of the discussion.

ROGER CLEMENS

Blue Jays, 1997

WAR: 10.3

AL MVP: KEN GRIFFEY JR.

WAR: 9.4

CLEMENS'S MVP

RANK: 10th

RANDY JOHNSON

Diamondbacks, 1999

WAR: 8.2

NL MVP: CHIPPER JONES

WAR: 7.0

JOHNSON'S MVP

RANK: 15th

ZACK GREINKE

Royals, 2009

WAR: 9.0

AL MVP: JOE MAUER

WAR: 7.9

GREINKE'S MVP

RANK: 17th

UBALDO JIMENEZ

Rockies, 2010

WAR: 7.2

NL MVP: JOEY VOTTO

WAR: 5.9

JIMENEZ'S MVP

RANK: 23rd

WAR data from baseball-reference.com

PHOTOPhotograph by TOM DAHLINWINNING Verlander's victory total is eye-catching, but with league bests in strikeouts, innings, WHIP and WAR (among pitchers), he could become only the second pitcher in the last 25 years to win the MVP. PHOTOMARK CUNNINGHAM/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (BULLPEN)EYES OF THE TIGERS On days he pitches, Verlander (in the bullpen, left) is all business; that intensity is a major reason he, DH Victor Martinez (above) and the rest of the team are smiling through a runaway second half. PHOTODUANE BURLESON/AP[See caption above] PHOTODAVID SEELIG/GETTY IMAGES (CLEMENS) PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (JOHNSON) PHOTOMARK CUNNINGHAM/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (GREINKE) PHOTOTIM DEFRISCO (JIMENEZ)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)