If there was one thing I got right before the season, it was backing Justin Verlander.
Not only did I pick him to win the American League Cy Young Award — which he has all but clinched, as with another start this week he has a chance to win 20 games before the end of August — before the season, but I also selected him as the first pitcher taken in my A.L.-only fantasy draft.
But, enough about me, let’s talk about him.
The prototypical power pitching gunslinger, Verlander’s average fastball velocity hasn’t dipped below 95.1 mph over the last three seasons. However, his reliance on the fastball has changed with the emergence of his secondary pitches over the last two seasons.
Verlander’s first truly dominant season in the majors came in ‘09 when he had a 2.80 FIP in 240 innings, lead the league in pitches thrown (he did that in ‘10 too), and threw his fastball a whopping 67.2% of the time. Since then he’s holstered his gun a bit to keep bullets in the chamber for later, throwing his fastball just 52% of the time in ‘10 and 45.6% this year.
That shows you how smart of a pitcher Verlander really is as once he realized how to control his fastball and maintain his plus-plus velocity, he continued to master the art with his secondary pitches and he’s dominated ever since. It might’ve been interesting to see a pitcher continually try to purely overpower hitters with fastballs coming out of his hand nearly three quarters of the time, but instead what we’re seeing is Verlander throwing his curveball and changeup a career-high combined 37% of time and slider a career-high 8.6% of the time (according to FanGraphs’ PitchFx). He’s now a gunslinger with really good breaking stuff who also knows how to pitch. He’s special and that’s why they call him “Must-See-JV.”
As for his MVP candidacy, not only does Verlander lead all AL starters in WAR, FIP, xFIP, starts, innings, wins, and strikeouts, but he’s also having an absolutely historic WHIP season. According to Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, since 1901 there have only been 25 seasons (including Verlander’s ‘11) where a pitcher threw over 200 innings with a WHIP below 0.90. 14 of those seasons came before 1920 and only three pitchers have achieved the feat since ‘68 (Greg Madduxx twice in ‘94 and ‘95, Pedro Martinez in ‘00, and Randy Johnson in ‘04).
Verlander has undoubtedly been the most effective pitcher in the AL thus far (no matter what Jered Weaver’s ERA is), but if he’s going to get MVP consideration he’s going to have to lean on the narrative of his historic season and the late season drama in the AL playoff picture. The AL Central is the only division truly still up for grabs as no matter how small the Rangers lead over the Angels in the West is it still seems insurmountable, and the Tigers would be nowhere in this race without Verlander. Frankly, the Tigers just aren’t a very good team when Verlander isn’t on the hill. In his 28 starts this year, the team has a record of 20-8 (.714 WP%) and he’s picked up the winning decision in 19 of those games. In the 99 games without Verlander on the mound, the Tigers are 49-50.
If he continues on his historic pace and carries the Tigers to the playoffs for their first division title since ‘87, I’d say he has a pretty good case for the AL MVP. Especially so if Jose Bautista, whose Blue Jays of course aren’t in the playoff race, and Curtis Granderson were to slow down at all in September. It’ll be interesting to watch the rest of the way, but with the dearth of tight division races, Verlander’s candidacy might rest on if the Indians or White Sox can keep pace with him and the Tigers to make those games in the last week of the season count.