The race for the AL Cy Young runner-up

Detroit's Justin Verlander is bearing down on the AL Cy Young. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

To say that every Detroit Tiger’s game is must-see TV would be an exaggeration to anyone, including Tiger fans. I’m one of them, and I understand not everyone can watch or listen to every single game like the diehards do. But there is no argument that, so far in 2011, every fifth Detroit Tiger game has fallen under the category of must-see television, and that’s because of Justin Verlander.

Tuesday night against the Minnesota Twins was no different. Verlander once again took the mound with 40,000 fans watching at Comerica Park, thousands more on television, and he delivered like he has all season long ; 7.2 innings later, he had all but insured a major-league leading 18th win. He also added to his major-league leading strikeout total (204) and innings pitched (202.2), and to be short, had distanced himself from the field in the race for the AL Cy Young.

That’s right. The Cy Young in the American League is Justin Verlander’s to lose.

He is the Detroit Tigers’ workhorse. They rely on him to perform at near-perfect levels every time he takes the mound, and most nights, he gives them what they need. In games when Verlander takes the mound after a Detroit loss, he is 14-3, and that includes Tuesday night’s win.

But Tuesday wasn’t even Verlander at his best. In an outing where he labored through the first inning with 29 pitches and a total of 60 in the first three, it looked as if, even if Minnesota wasn’t scoring runs, they could at least knock Verlander out early. His response to the first three innings? He threw just 44 pitches in the next three and a total of 61 over his last 4.2 innings. His final line was 7.2 IP with 8 K, 1 ER, and 7 hits. That’s a line that any pitcher on any team is dying to have at the end of the night, and Verlander wasn’t even at his best.

At this point, Verlander is running away with the award, but to him, that isn’t the hardware he is chasing. Caught up in the middle of a tight three-way race in the AL Central, Verlander is trying to pitch well enough to get his team a win and into the playoffs. He has raced out to 18 wins on the season and almost insured a Tiger win every fifth day.

But there are other pitchers in the American League who also are having stellar seasons and, until recently, have been fighting Verlander for the Cy Young: CC Sabathia and Jered Weaver. Up until the past few weeks, Sabathia and Weaver had very strong cases for why they deserved the prestigious award.

Weaver’s case is unique. Although his numbers don’t quite stack up with Verlander’s, he still wins the ERA battle, and when it comes to the Cy Young Award, that’s a big battle to win. Through 24 starts this season, he has kept his ERA under 2.00. Since 1990, only three players have finished a season with a sub-2.00 ERA. Those players were Greg Maddux twice (1.56 ERA in 1994 and 1.63 ERA in 1995), Pedro Martinez twice (1.74 ERA in 2000 and 1.90 ERA in 1997) and Roger Clemens (1.87 ERA in 2005). Both Martinez and Maddux were unanimous decisions to win the Cy Young in both seasons, while Clemens failed to win the award in 2005.

When looking at those stats, it would be hard to imagine anyone else winning the award if Weaver were to finish the season with an ERA below 2.00. It would be hard to imagine anyone else if Weaver was able to keep his ERA that low and if Verlander wasn’t having the season he is having. But Weaver hasn’t kept his ERA that low and Verlander is having that good of a season. In his last start, Weaver lasted just 4.2 innings while giving up 8 earned runs and raising his season ERA to 2.13 and only .2 points lower than Verlander.

Weavers biggest asset was his under-2.00 ERA. With his struggles in his latest start and Verlander’s continued dominance, Weaver has fallen way behind. Weaver’s 153 Ks trails Verlander by 51. He has won four less games. His 0.97 WHIP is eleven points higher than Verlander’s 0.88, and his BAA of .207 is twenty points higher than Verlander’s .187 BAA. In order for Weaver to have any chance at catching Verlander, he will need to better his statistics in almost every category and hope Verlander stumbles in games down the stretch.

For the first three months of the season, Sabathia also had a legitimate argument for winning the Cy Young. He was leading the majors in wins, and he plays for perennial World Series contenders in  the New York Yankees. He is a big star in a big city, and he won the award in 2007 with the Cleveland Indians. Baseball loves two-time winners, especially ones who play in big markets.

But Sabathia has stopped winning games. In his last two starts, Sabathia has thrown 14 total innings, giving up 12 earned runs and six home runs. He took the loss in both games after having won seven of eight games throughout June and July. His 16 wins were once a major-league best, now he trails Verlander’s 18 by two. On top of that, Sabathia trails Verlander in every major statistical category. For Sabathia to win the Cy Young, he has to overtake Verlander in wins again, dramatically lower his ERA of 2.95 and raise his strikeout total past Verlander’s. At this point, Sabathia may end up being a long shot, but the bright side is he may be playing into October and November while Weaver and Verlander may end up at home.

It’s clear that, to this point, Verlander has been the best pitcher in the American League, and all of baseball for that matter. He is having one of those seasons that could make people look back on 2011 and call it Justin Verlander’s season, the same way we all did in 1997 with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa , 1995 with Greg Maddux and 2001 with Barry Bonds. If Verlander continues throwing the way he has all season long, he will win the award, and he may even help his team to a playoff appearance. He has been a man on a mission for his team and left us gushing at what he does every night he takes the mound.

Leading the league in over five major statistical categories for pitchers, Justin Verlander is having a career-defining season in 2011.

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