Greg Eno of Bleacher Report recently wrote an article comparing the relative lack of scrutiny and fanfare that surrounded Tiger legend Al Kaline’s pursuit of 3,000 hits to the commotion caused surrounding the entry of the most recent member of the club, Derek Jeter. His fundamental analysis is correct; indeed, the game has changed substantially in the past 40 years.
Taking this thought process a bit further, though, enables us to find links and bridges for comparison between generations. Justin Verlander, the 28-year-old Detroit Tigers All-Star pitcher, is now in his seventh major league season. In what is surely the best season of his young career, Verlander’s line reads: 12-4, 2.15 ERA, 151 IP, 147 K, 101 H, 4 CG, and 2 SHO in 20 starts. One of those complete-game shutouts was a no-hitter.
Is this the “best season” of all time by a Tigers pitcher? Before I do any research, I would have to guess “no.” The first season that comes to mind, of course, is that of Denny McLain in 1968. That was the year that McLain became the last pitcher to win 30 games in one season (he went 31-6).
In this analysis, I am using a sampling of seasons from some of the best Tigers pitchers, as determined by their career Wins Above Replacement (WAR). This list is by no means exhaustive and meant to illustrate a point. In the interest of fair analysis, I am also going to use ESPN.com’s current prorated statistics of Justin Verlander and assume that he will finish the season with similar statistics.
Justin Verlander 2011 21-7 2.15 ERA 7CG 4SHO 266 IP 259 K 0.87 WHIP 6.0 H/9 176 ERA+
Denny McLain 1968 31-6 1.96 ERA 28CG 6SHO 336 IP 280 K 0.91 WHIP 6.5 H/9 154 ERA+
Tommy Bridges 1936 23-11 3.60 ERA 26CG 5SHO 294.2 IP 175K 1.37 WHIP 8.8 H/9 137 ERA+
Hal Newhouser 1945 25-9 1.81 ERA 29CG 8SHO 313.1IP 212K 1.11 WHIP 6.9 H/9 195 ERA+
Dizzy Trout 1944 27-17 2.12 ERA 33CG 7SHO 352.1IP 144K 1.13 WHIP 8.0 H/9 167 ERA+
Jack Morris 1986 21-8 3.27 ERA 15CG 6SHO 267 IP 223K 1.17 WHIP 7.7 H/9 127 ERA+
To appreciate these statistics, one has to give them some perspective. As even casual fans know, the high profile given to teams’ “closers” has substantially diminished the need for a pitcher to throw a complete game. With the exception of James Shields, Roy Halladay, Livan Hernandez, and a select few others, pitchers rarely complete even one-fifth of their starts in a season.
Therefore, the game has changed substantially in that regard, making the statistic somewhat irrelevant. So yes, if Verlander keeps up his current pace, he will still have thrown 26 fewer complete games than Dizzy Trout did in 1944. But Dizzy Trout's manager did not have Jose Valverde as a ninth inning option, either.
McLain’s 1968 season was indeed spectacular. In the original “Year of the Pitcher,” McLain and St. Louis’ Bob Gibson were the poster boys for the golden age of pitching. McLain’s 31 wins are astounding.
He did, however, have a league-leading 41 starts. Verlander currently leads the league with 20, and may end up with 35 by the end of the season. While Verlander would not win 31 games even with the extra starts, he also has not received the same level of support that McLain received in his magical year.
Jack Morris' and Tommy Bridges' seasons line up most favorably with Verlander statistically in terms of innings pitched, providing a fairly good indicator of statistics such as strikeouts per nine innings—a statistic where Verlander clearly holds an edge.
The two metrics that I believe demand the most attention are WHIP and ERA+, with attention given to H/9 and ERA. WHIP [(Walks + Hits)/IP] and H/9 (Hits per nine innings) are excellent metrics of a pitcher’s dominance. WHIP, in particular, is perhaps the best indicator of how well a pitcher does his job: keep runners from reaching base.
By the metric of WHIP, Verlander’s 2011 campaign ranks ahead of all of the seasons to which it has been compared thus far. The closest pitcher to his 0.87 is McLain’s 0.91 campaign in 1968. Verlander’s H/9 of 6.0 is good for the 29th best season of all time. The name of the pitcher with the 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th best season of all time? Nolan Ryan.
ERA+, as you may know, is an adjusted ERA index. Whereas ERA measures earned runs related to innings pitched, ERA+ is (100*(league ERA/player ERA) adjusted to ballpark. What this statistic effectively does is that it neutralizes discussions about which era (the time period, not the statistic) has better hitting, which pitcher throws in pitcher friendly parks, etc.
Justin Verlander’s ERA is far lower than that of Morris and Bridges and ranks behind—although within striking distance—of McLain, Trout, and Newhouser. A look to Verlander’s 176 ERA+, however, shows that Verlander is second only to Hal Newhouser, who sported an excellent 195 ERA+.
Consider this, however: Newhouser’s 195 ERA+ is good for only the 46th best single season for the statistic. In the modern era, Pedro Martinez’ 291 in 2000 is the best (Tim Keefe had a 295 ERA+ in 1880).
If ERA+ is an accurate index of a pitcher’s dominance with respect to the rest of the league, then perhaps this metric is not too friendly to Verlander; he is currently third in the league in that statistic behind Josh Beckett and Jered Weaver. Remarkably, Denny McLain’s 1.96 ERA (154 ERA+) in his dream season of 1968 ranks as only the 391st best season by that metric.
Please understand these statistics for what they are: They are merely metrics—just something to go by. I don’t believe that 390 other pitchers had better seasons than McLain did in 1968, and I personally don’t believe that Pedro Martinez had the single “greatest season” of any pitcher in the modern era.
My point is that the game of baseball—the players, the coaching, everything—has changed since the days of Hal Newhouser and Dizzy Trout. And yet nothing has changed. Justin Verlander is still throwing a little white ball to a man with a bat hoping that man he is throwing to does not reach base.
And looking at some of these statistics, Verlander has done his job this season at least as well as any Tiger that has come before him.