The win has taken some heat the past few seasons, and a lot of it has to do with some misunderstanding around its value as a stat in assessing a pitcher’s talent. That’s because it doesn’t really say anything about a pitcher one way or another.
Wins can be descriptive, but they most certainly aren’t indicative. A guy with 13 wins in mid-September hasn’t necessarily had a poor season just because his peers are in the high teens pushing toward 20. Meanwhile, a guy with 16 or 17 in mid-September hasn’t necessarily had a great year.
However there is no mistaking that reaching 20 wins before September, as Justin Verlander did Saturday afternoon in Minnesota, is truly indicative of a special season. Notching 20 wins in six months, or over a full season, is one thing, but doing so in five months is quite another. Verlander’s year has been so good that he is now garnering legitimate consideration for the American League MVP.
Verlander is now on pace for 25 wins, which would be a 20-year high (topping the 24 won by John Smoltz in 1996 and Randy Johnson in 2002). More importantly, his 265-inning pace would be the sixth-highest mark since 1992. The biggest issue when discussing starting pitchers as MVP candidates is their playing time contribution to a team. The argument is that hitters play every day and thus they make a larger contribution to the bottom line, while pitchers throw just every fifth day.
Looking at Verlander’s 216 innings shows that he has pitched 18.6 percent of the Tigers' total innings (1161) while the team’s best offensive player and marginal MVP candidate, Miguel Cabrera, has logged 577 plate appearances, or 11.5 percent of their 5,001 total plate appearances. So who is really making a bigger contribution?
There are plenty of stats to determine a player’s contribution in a catch-all figure with wins above replacement level (WAR) being the favorite, whether from FanGraphs or Baseball Reference. Looking at FanGraphs’ version (fWAR) he has a 6.4 mark which tops the American League and is second only to Roy Halladay of the Phillies (6.9). It is here where I think the case for Verlander as MVP really breaks down. If you are going to anoint the AL’s best pitcher, how is Halladay not getting more support for the NL award? Using fWAR, there are three hitters ahead of Verlander’s 6.4 mark, with Jose Bautista at 7.8 leading the universe and a pair of Red Sox close behind (Dustin Pedroia with 7.1; Jacoby Ellsbury at 6.8). Halladay’s 6.9 paces the NL with Joey Votto at 6.5 and Troy Tulowitzki at 6.4.
So while Verlander may not deserve legitimate MVP consideration, he still has a chance to become the first 25-game winner since 1990, when Oakland’s Bob Welch won 27. It’s nothing close to a lock, though. Verlander should get about six more starts, possibly seven or eight if short rest becomes a consideration -- which would come into play only if Cleveland or Chicago tightened up the race.
Verlander would have to win five of those six expected turns on the mound. He has two seven-game winning streaks this year, including his current eight-game run. Keep in mind that the last pitcher to reach 20 wins in five months was Curt Schilling in 2002, and he actually did it in mid-August (20-4 on Aug. 16), and despite nine more starts he won “only” 23 that year. He did post a 5.09 ERA in the 58 innings subsequent to the 20th win, which has a lot to do with it and while there is nothing to suggest that Verlander would implode like that, there was nothing to suggest that Schilling would, either.
What we are witnessing is a history-making season from Verlander. Whether he wins the Cy Young, MVP or 25 games, it’s quite clear that he has fully evolved into a bona fide superstar. He is operating at a level where he can legitimately throw a no-hitter on any given night. There are other great pitchers who have no-hit stuff, but only he and Halladay bring that stuff every fifth day without fail.
When you scan the leaderboards at the end of a season, don’t sort by wins and make judgments about how good or bad a pitcher was, rather understand that they merely offer additional description on a pitcher’s season. A pitcher’s win total at season’s end shouldn’t even be on the list of stats that tell you how bad a pitcher was, but they can tell you how good he was. With Verlander notching his 20th on Aug. 27, there is no mistaking that he has been truly excellent.
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Paul Sporer writes at Pitt Plank, the little piece of Piracy in the SweetSpot network.