Can the Detroit Tigers' Justin Verlander Be the Best Pitcher of His Generation?

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Can the Detroit Tigers' Justin Verlander Be the Best Pitcher of His Generation?
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Justin Verlander: One of the best of his time? (And don't forget to duck.)

Justin Verlander just might be the best starting pitcher in his age bracket, but it’s not a sure thing.

First, it depends on how you define generation and then how much weight you put on a single season. Verlander was born in 1983, making him 29 this year. Consider some of the pitchers who were born within a few years of him on either side and what they’ve done during the years of Verlander’s major league career:


2012 age

W

L

ERA

Tim Lincecum

27

69

41

2.98

Adam Wainwright

30

66

35

2.97

CC Sabathia

31

122

61

3.22

Felix Hernandez

26

85

67

3.24

Jered Weaver

29

82

47

3.31

Matt Cain

27

69

73

3.35

Cole Hamels

28

74

54

3.39

Dan Haren

31

101

74

3.49

Jon Lester

28

76

34

3.53

Justin Verlander

29

107

57

3.54


Now, win totals don’t mean very much, but run prevention does. Earned run average is a measure that is subject to distortions on the part of park, league and defense, but it will serve as a proxy for a better measure here.

By this standard, Verlander is not necessarily the best—yet—but he’s close; we can apply a heavy discount to the pure National Leaguers due to the advantage of pitching in the non-DH league. On the other hand, we should probably ding Verlander for spending a good deal of his time pitching in a division with “Central” in the title—“Central” meaning “not serious” in baseball parlance.

As you can see, Verlander is near the bottom in terms of ERA, but looking at his whole career doesn’t really give us the full picture: His ERA has dropped in three consecutive seasons. In 2008, he led the American League in losses behind a 4.84 ERA. The next year he dropped to 3.45, then 3.37 and finally a league-leading 2.40 last season.

His career totals disguise the reality that he’s peaking now.

Or has he peaked? Just five pitchers have thrown 700 or more innings over the last three seasons: Verlander, Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, Sabathia and Haren. There is a school of thought that says that some pitchers are of a physical type that they can bear continual heavy workloads, and we shouldn’t worry that Verlander has reached these high totals or that he has led the AL in innings with totals as high as 240 and 251.

This is a nice thought, a Pollyannaish always-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life way of conceiving certain pitchers, but the truth is that there is no pitcher who is immune to the debilitating effects of heavy workloads; open your Baseball Encyclopedia, if you still have one, flip to any great pitcher and see if you can track the injuries without even seeing them indicated.

Just look for wide variances in performance level. You will see that the dips inevitably follow a three- or five-year period such as the one that Verlander just had.

I’m not necessarily predicting an injury for Verlander, and I surely hope that he will not have one. I assert only that when there is no reason for a phenomenon to continue, or even to exist at all, it usually stops. As a matter of religious belief, I categorically deny the existence of any pitcher whose mechanics are so good that he is immune to fatigue-related injury.

But that is speculative. Let’s return to what the defending Cy Young and MVP award winner is now.

Is he one of the most durable pitchers in baseball? Yes. Is he one of the most effective? Yes. Is he the most effective? Ah, well, there’s a more difficult question.

He was last year, that’s for certain. He was not only one of the most effective pitchers, he was one of the most effective players, hence his winning an award usually reserved for hitters. Could he be that again? Sure. And if he can be that again, if he can remain at this pinnacle for a number of years, then someday we will look back and say, “Lo, here was the greatest pitcher of his age group, generation or Social Security-peer cadre.”

Will he maintain that level? Probably not; we have three seasons of improvement and very good performances balanced against one season of great performance. You have an indicator like batting average on balls in play that suggests that luck and defense played a role in the campaign, as it does in almost all great campaigns—Verlander saw his BABIP against drop to .237 from .289.

Yes, he induces weak contact, but he induced weak contact the year before, and the year before that, and hitters still weren’t so prone to make outs when they put the bat on the ball.

Finally, you have that workload bugaboo: The fellow threw over 4,000 pitches between the regular season and postseason.

These things are more easily judged in retrospect, when we have a full career to consider. Just as a note of warning, take a look at the most similar pitchers to Verlander that show up on his Baseball-Reference page. He’s got Dan Haren, Cliff Lee and Jered Weaver. Great.

However, his top 10 also contains Teddy Higuera, Jake Peavy, Mark Mulder, Gary Nolan, Brandon Webb, Don Gullett and Alex Fernandez, all of whom had some excellent seasons before arm and/or shoulder problems stopped them dead. Webb, in particular, was about halfway to a Hall of Fame career when his career came to a screeching halt.

If your pockets aren’t already full of caveats, here’s one other: Verlander’s 2011 performance was one of the 10 or so best of this century, but it also wasn’t close to the best. Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and even Zack Greinke ’09 were better.

We can ooh and aah at Verlander’s 2011, but there’s a good chance there are better seasons on the way—if not from him, then from some other pitcher.

All of the foregoing is a long-winded way of saying that we don’t know what Verlander will be and that with pitchers, it’s always safer to bet the under. Verlander certainly possesses the power tools to dominate his era, but as with all pitchers, he could just as easily retreat from this peak, never again to scale these heights.

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