Fantasy Baseball Draft Day Decision: Why Justin Verlander Is Not the Top SP

Eric StashinSenior Writer IJanuary 25, 2012

DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 13:  Justin Verlander #35 of the Detroit Tigers throws a pitch against the Texas Rangers in Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Comerica Park on October 13, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Justin Verlander had an extremely impressive 2011 campaign, garnering not just the AL Cy Young but also the AL MVP Award.  That obviously means that he should enter the 2012 season as the top pitcher on our draft boards, right?  I wouldn’t be so quick to make that assessment.

Obviously, the numbers are hard to argue:

24 Wins
251.0 Innings
2.40 ERA
0.92 WHIP
250 Strikeouts (8.96 K/9)
57 Walks (2.04 BB/9)
.236 BABIP

They are impressive, though the wins go a long way in clouding our judgment of his season.  He had won 17 or more games in four of the prior five seasons, so it’s not like he is going to suddenly not win games.  However, can we really enter 2012 expecting him to duplicate that success?

Over the past five years there have only been nine pitchers to post at least 20 victories in a season.  Here are a few notes on that:

  • Outside of Verlander in ’11, the only other pitcher to win more than 21 games in a season was Cliff Lee and Brandon Webb (each won 22 games in 2008)
  • Only one pitcher has posted multiple seasons with 20+ (Roy Halladay in 2008 and 2010)

Winning 20+ games is not a common occurrence and winning as many as 24 is downright rare.  We cannot enter the season expecting him to come even relatively close to that mark.  Keep that in mind before you push him to the top of your rankings.

The other major number to look at is his luck metrics.  Obviously you don’t post the types of numbers that he did without some luck, but seeing him replicate his .236 BABIP or 80.3 percent strand rate would be hard to imagine.  He has always been a good pitcher, but for his career he has posted marks of .285 and 73.3 percent, respectively.  A return to the norm would obviously mean an increase in both his ERA and WHIP.

Further clouding the WHIP picture is his potential regression in his control.  He has always shown off great control before, but his career BB/9 is 2.81 and had only once in his career had he posted a mark better than 2.85 before 2011.  I’m not about to suggest that he’s going to fall off a cliff, but a mark around 2.50 feels a lot more realistic.

Then we get to the strikeouts, where he is a good option but there may be a bit of a misnomer regarding him.  He’s not an elite strikeout pitcher, only once having posted a K/9 better than 9.00.  He’s a very, very good option, but a lot of his success in this department also comes from the number of innings he pitches.  He is just not the same type of strikeout pitcher as a Clayton Kershaw or Tim Lincecum.  They could reach 200 K even if they were to throw just 180-190 innings.  With Verlander, that’s not likely to happen.

You also have to throw in one other major issue when you are comparing Verlander to other top pitchers in the game today.  He pitches in the American League, while pitchers like Kershaw and Halladay call the National League home.  Not having to face the DH every single day does give them a major advantage, as there are much easier outs for them to get.

While it may seem like I’ve spent the entire column torching Verlander, that’s really not the case.  He is a top four starting pitcher for me, but there are too many questions hanging over him to keep him out of the top spot.  Most notably:

  • He pitches in the AL
  • I will not over rank him due to the number of wins in 2011
  • There is a high likelihood that his luck turns, meaning his numbers will regress across the board

Just keep that in mind.  Many people won’t draft starting pitchers early and that is fine.  If you are going to select a pitcher in the first two rounds, I would go another direction.  Unfortunately, it is hard to believe that he will live up to that type of selection.

What are your thoughts on Verlander?  Where do you rank him among starting pitchers?  Would he be the first pitcher off your draft board?

Make sure to check out the rest of our 2012 rankings: