American League MVP: Vouching for Verlander

Justin Verlander
Verlander is out of the shadows on the MVP voting ... he's locked up the Cy Young.

Naturally, baseball fans have a tendency to take special interest in individual award races when a player from their favorite team is involved. As a Red Sox fan, I love seeing both Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez garnering consideration this season.

And yet, my vote, if I had one, would not go to either of those two. Instead, my endorsement is in favor of Detroit’s staff ace, Justin Verlander.

It has been a number of years since a pitcher has even been a part of the MVP discussion, at least this seriously. The fact that Verlander is now being mentioned this year has spawned a significant amount of debate surrounding the legitimacy of such a notion. I’ve heard the points made by those who oppose Verlander, and as a Red Sox fan with rooting interest for my own team’s contenders, I want so badly to agree with them. However, I can’t ignore the particular impact Verlander has had on the Tigers.

For those who aren’t familiar with Justin at all, let’s take a look at his statistical performance in 2011.

Justin Verlander leads both leagues in quality starts (27), ERA (2.29), WHIP (0.91), innings pitched (244) and win percentage (.828). Yes, both leagues — despite the National League annually being easier on pitchers, statistically speaking.

The above numbers each mark career-bests for Verlander but they’re not the only ones. Others include wins (24), shutouts (2), batting average against (.190) and ERA+ (190). Even more impressive is the fact that, despite throwing more innings this year than any other, he has managed to allow career-lows in hits (166), walks (56) and earned runs (62).

Then again, statistics don’t always tell the whole story and certainly shouldn’t be the sole decider in a MVP voting.

One of the most frustrating aspects in debates regarding baseball’s MVP Award is the fact that, really, the criterion from which the winner is chosen remains rather vague. The voting is done by the Baseball Writers Association. So, in turn, tallying is subject to what each individual voter deems most relative to the matter.

Some voters simply look at statistics; some may never have seen Justin Verlander pitch this year. Others value each player’s team success, defensive contributions and intangibles such as leadership, just to name a few.

Personally, I like to incorporate all of that and then some. Why not be as comprehensive as possible?

Seemingly, the most common deterrent to Verlander’s case is the fact that, as a starting pitcher, he contributes on the field only once every five days. Then there are those who discredit Verlander’s high win total, claiming wins and losses can be deceiving in the new world of Sabermetric measurements. Besides, as a lot of people like to say, pitchers have the Cy Young Award to determine the best at their position; the MVP should be left for the hitters. Unfortunately, as the award’s voting history indicates, arguments such as those often are accepted.

To me, the Cy Young Award is given to the best pitcher in the league just as the Silver Slugger Award is handed out to the best hitter in the league at each position. The Most Valuable Player Award should be given to, well, the most valuable player. If that happens to be a pitcher, then so be it. Who is to say pitching is any less important than hitting?

I even agree with those who say that stats such as wins and ERA are a mind-numbingly basic, caveman-like measurement of a pitcher’s greatness amongst other new age ways of statistical analysis. It’s undeniable, numbers such as those do tend to mislead more often than not — and yes, even Verlander’s win-loss total is not very indicative of the way he’s pitched.

As a matter of fact, Verlander’s 24-5 record could, perhaps even should, be even better.

For instance, Verlander has earned just four no-decisions this year. Those four games came against the New York Yankees (twice), the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays — widely considered three of the most prolific offensive teams in the American League. It’s one thing just to avoid taking a loss against teams like those, it’s another to do so while turning in quality starts and striking out eight or more hitters, as Verlander did in three of those four no-decisions.

Believe it or not, Verlander’s numbers in the five games he’s lost this year are even better than those in his no-decisions. In those five losses, Verlander averaged 6.9 innings pitched and 6.4 strikeouts to go along with a 3.38 earned run average.

As far as those who are quick to write off Verlander’s candidacy based on the fact that he plays only once every five games, I would again ask that they be a little bit more comprehensive.

For one, a starting pitcher controls every pitch of every inning he pitches. For someone such as Verlander, that means the fate of the team is more dependent on him than any other single player for an average of about seven innings once every five games. How is that any less important than a hitter who controls the fate of his team at the plate just three or four times a game? After all, I’ve seen more hitters collect four hits in a loss than I’ve seen teams lose games in which their starter contributes seven or eight shutout frames.

Speaking of going deep into games — as a starting pitcher, you’re expected to last at least five innings each time out. You can’t even qualify for a win unless you do so. But again, wins aren’t everything. It’s the importance of a pitcher’s ability to go deep into games that gets enormously underappreciated, especially nowadays. What is most often overlooked in that sense is the impact it has on all other aspects of a team, and not just every fifth day. When a starting pitcher can consistently go deep into games, it lightens the bullpen’s workload and affords the manager more well-rested options in the games that immediately follow. Meaning, if you really think about it, a good starting pitcher impacts every series he pitches in.

That being said,  Verlander has lasted at least six innings in 33 of his 33 starts this season. Yes, every single one. In those starts, Verlander has thrown at least 100 pitches 100 percent of the time. Numbers such as that are more impressive and impactful when you consider the team that Verlander plays on.

Aside from Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit and Daniel Schlereth, the Tigers bullpen is pretty abysmal. That doesn’t bode well for Detroit, as the majority of the team’s starting rotation has earned run averages well-above 4.00 and won’t even sniff the 200-inning plateau this season.

With a staff like that, it’s hard to imagine the Tigers contending in the playoffs. Then again, without Verlander, it’d be nearly impossible even imagining this team in the playoffs at all. It’s no coincidence that as the Tigers began to seize control of the American League Central just a couple months ago, Verlander was in the midst of one of the most dominating stretches of his career.

Back on July 15, the Detroit Tigers lost to the Chicago White Sox 8-2, as they fell to 49-44 and a game behind the Cleveland Indians for the division lead. Verlander took the loss, lasting just six innings and allowing four runs. The start ballooned his ERA to 2.29 and dropped his record to 12-5.

In his 12 starts since that loss, Verlander has gone 12-0 with a 2.28 ERA. The Tigers during that stretch? 40-20. If that doesn’t speak on behalf of his impact on the team as a whole, I don’t know what could.

Let me put it this way — as the playoffs loom and matchups begin to take shape, the Detroit Tigers have become one of the most feared first-round opponents in the American League, according to most analysts. The biggest reason for that is not necessarily the team’s recent hot streak or even an offense that boasts one of the greatest hitters in all of baseball, Miguel Cabrera. No, the justification always begins and ends with Verlander.

That’s to say, any team with the task of facing Verlander twice in a best-of-five series already finds themselves at a severe disadvantage going in — mentally, if nothing else.

Consider this: Detroit, in some people’s eyes, already is the favorite to win their first-round series and they don’t even have an opponent yet. After all, with Verlander on your team, opponents are just details; it doesn’t matter. As they say, good pitching always beats good hitting. Even the opponents will recognize that. Don’t think that players on contending teams around the league aren’t already thinking about potentially having to face the Tigers — or should I say Verlander — in that scenario.

All that influence and intimidation as a result of one player who pitches just once every five days?

For me, it doesn’t get much more valuable than Verlander.

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