Justin Verlander could have an impact on the 2012 postseason regardless of whether the Detroit Tigers participate. In contrast to commissioner Bud Selig, a proponent of linking World Series home-field advantage to the All-Star Game result, Verlander views the Midsummer Classic as more an exhibition than armageddon. That led to his decision to come out blazing in July, an approach that backfired when he got shelled in the first inning and the American League went on to lose 8-0.
"I know this game means something," Verlander said after his horrific outing in Kansas City. "But we're here for the fans, and I know the fans don't want to see me throw 90 [mph] and hit the corners. Just let it eat, and have fun."
So feel free to utter Verlander's name in vain when your favorite AL team is playing Game 7 of the Series on the road. But we're not going to hand out postseason accolades based on a single bad-hair day in July, are we?
NL CY YOUNG AWARD
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Verlander has a lot to recommend him for a second straight AL Cy Young Award. Are his credentials enough to beat out Tampa Bay's David Price, a strong candidate to lead the league in both wins and ERA? Or Seattle's Felix Hernandez? Or Chicago's precocious lefty Chris Sale? Or Tampa Bay closer Fernando Rodney, who has enjoyed an amazing resurgence this season as part of the Joe Maddon Revive A Closer's Career program?
The answer, from this vantage point, is yes. It's not an emphatic or resounding yes in comparison to last year, when Verlander joined Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and five others on the list of pitchers to win the Cy Young Award and MVP in the same season. With two weeks left in the season and two starts remaining for the top contenders, the race is very close and still fluid enough to change. But by virtue of his durability, reliability and overall excellence, Verlander has done enough to become the first back-to-back AL Cy Young winner since Pedro Martinez of the 1999-2000 Red Sox.
He is not the Justin Verlander of 2011. But the 2012 version is good enough.
He hasn't even been the most dominant starter on his own team for the past 4½ months. That honor goes to Max Scherzer, who is 15-3 with a 3.16 ERA and 201 strikeouts in 156 1/3 innings pitched since May. Scherzer left his last start after two innings because of shoulder fatigue and is touch-and-go the rest of the way.
Verlander's overall numbers also fail to stack up with his transcendent 2011 season. His WHIP and ERA are higher, and he has a 15-8 record compared to 24-5 a year ago. But that's partly a function of factors beyond his control. Verlander has the 85th-best run support (at 3.68 runs per game) among 92 qualifying starters in the ESPN.com rankings.
The most widely accepted all-purpose metric still favors him. Verlander leads Price in Wins Above Replacement, according to both FanGraphs (6.2 to 4.4) and Baseball-Reference.com (7.0 to 5.6). He's on track to become the first AL pitcher to lead the league in WAR in consecutive seasons since Johan Santana did it for the Minnesota Twins from 2004 through 2006.
Much has been made of Price's strong performance against the American League East, but Verlander also has been very effective against playoff contenders. He's 10-4 with a 2.40 ERA against Baltimore, Cincinnati, Oakland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Texas, Tampa Bay, the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees. And he beat Peavy and Sale by identical 4-2 scores in their head-to-head matchups.
Verlander's consistency and workhorse mentality give him the edge. He leads the majors with 223 1/3 innings after throwing a whopping 271 1/3 between the regular season and playoffs last year. His streak of 63 straight outings with at least six innings pitched ended July 31 against Boston, but only because the game was called after five because of rain. And while pitches thrown don't factor into the equation, Verlander has a little Jack Morris throwback streak in him when it comes to relinquishing the ball. Nine times this year, Verlander has thrown 120 or more pitches in a start. That's more than any other major league team.
Verlander's life isn't any easier pitching for the Tigers, who rank 27th in the majors in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency rankings. And he's 8-2 with a 1.60 ERA at Comerica Park, which has a reputation as a hitter's graveyard, but has been a more hitter-friendly yard than either Tropicana Field or Safeco Field (home of Price and Hernandez) this season.
Last year everything came easily for Verlander. He recorded his 1,000th career strikeout and second no-hitter and won every award imaginable. This year has been more a workmanlike, stoic, teeth-gritting performance straight out of the Roy Halladay-Chris Carpenter school of perennial ace-hood. It hasn't always been pretty. But while teammate Miguel Cabrera dominates the conversation with his Triple Crown pursuit and late MVP run at Mike Trout, Verlander could be the Tiger who comes away with the hardware.
For sake of full disclosure, I picked Price to win the AL Cy Young Award in ESPN.com's preseason predictions, so this isn't a case of a Justin Verlander man-crush on display.
Tampa Bay Rays
There's a significant historical precedent in Price's favor. With 18 wins and a 2.58 ERA, he is in position to lead the league in both categories. Since the Cy Young became a two-league proposition in 1967, 18 of the 19 pitchers who have achieved that feat have won the award. The lone exception came in 1984, when Detroit closer Willie Hernandez beat out Baltimore's Mike Boddicker.
The won-loss record could be even better. As Rick Vaughn and Tampa Bay's crack PR staff point out, Price has a 1.62 ERA in his six no-decisions. The Rays have been shut out in three of his starts, and he is only the fifth pitcher since 1918 to be tagged with two no-decisions in games when he threw shutout ball for eight innings with three or fewer hits allowed.
Those 18 victories would be a major boon to Price's candidacy, obviously, if wins still had the same cachet as they did when Brandon Webb went 22-7 in 2008. But the landscape irrevocably changed in 2009 when Tim Lincecum and Zack Greinke pocketed Cy Youngs with 15 and 16 victories, respectively. Many voters now rank wins well down their list of criteria when they ponder their Cy Young ballots in September.
Price deserves extra-credit points for his 8-2 record and 2.55 ERA against AL East competition, and he is 11-3, 2.23 against teams that are .500 or better. But when you can throw a blanket over the top pitchers in most major statistical categories, Price's reduced workload could erode his support. The Rays have done a diligent job managing Price's innings to get him through the season. But that foresight and tender loving care could cost him a Cy Young Award in the end.
He appeared to be on his way after throwing the 23rd perfect game in major league history in August and posting a 4-0 record with a 1.08 ERA for the month. But his Cy candidacy stalled in September with back-to-back shellings against Oakland and Toronto.
Hernandez, like Verlander and Price, is a big-time bullpen saver, with 22 starts of seven innings or more. Wednesday night's outing against Baltimore was classic Felix: The Mariners were coming off a disheartening 18-inning loss to the Orioles in which their lineup went 0-for-17 with runners in scoring position. With the bullpen spent, Hernandez churned out eight one-run innings before the Mariners lost it in 11.
Hernandez is 7-5 with a 2.95 ERA against teams that are .500 or better, and his numbers against elite competition are more a mixed bag than what Verlander and Price have to offer. He was dominant against Texas, Tampa Bay and the Yankees, and he got dinged around by the Angels and Athletics.
As usual, Hernandez has suffered from a lack of run support in Seattle. He ranks 86th in the majors (a tick below Verlander) with an average run support of 3.52 runs per game. But on his best days, the Mariners don't need to hit to win. This year, Hernandez joined Ferguson Jenkins and Bert Blyleven as the only pitchers since the start of divisional play in 1969 to win four 1-0 decisions with complete-game shutouts.
"Felix is Felix," Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik said in an email. "He's a very competitive guy with great stuff. On any given night he can dominate. He has matured and has learned to become more efficient. His pitch count has been down and he can put hitters away with swing-and-miss stuff. To have an anchor like he is for us helps the whole staff. He is a true No. 1 and capable of being in the Cy Young race every year. He's a winner, and that says a lot."
The White Sox have done a commendable job nurturing their young lefty through the season. They've backed off him when he looked fatigued, and at times they have pitched him on what GM Kenny Williams called a "college schedule," with an extra day of rest whenever possible. Given that Sale threw only 71 innings in the bullpen last season, the Sox still might be accused of pushing him too far if he zooms past 200 in the postseason. That's life as we know it in the Stephen Strasburg age.
Chicago White Sox
To this point, Sale has outpitched teammate Jake Peavy to earn a spot among the AL's top five in the Cy debate. Sale is 9-2 with a 1.72 ERA and .191 batting average against at U.S. Cellular Field. Lefties are hitting .223 against him and righties .226, so he is equal-opportunity imposing. The Elias Sports Bureau duly notes that Sale, Javier Vazquez of the 2006 White Sox and Ed Walsh of the 1910 squad are the only pitchers in franchise history with four games of 11 or more strikeouts in a season.
Teammate Adam Dunn revealed just how imposing Sale is with that funky motion and left-handed heat when he recalled a conversation with Minnesota outfielder Josh Willingham, who has 35 homers and a .898 OPS but is 0-for-9 with six strikeouts against Sale this season.
"Josh hates facing Sale," Dunn said at the All-Star break. "He told me, 'The guy has a slider I can't even see and a fastball I can't even touch.' And that's coming from a pretty good right-handed hitter."
Sale has done Florida Gulf Coast University proud this season and been labeled a Randy Johnson-in-training by some observers, and he has a chance to build on his performance in October. But like Price, he suffers from an innings deficit. It lands him just outside our big three.
Weaver finished second to Verlander in the Cy Young balloting last year and signed a five-year, $85 million contract extension last August. He threw a no-hitter against Minnesota in May, but he's had his share of issues staying healthy. First he went on the disabled list with a back injury in late May. Then he took a Dustin Ackley line drive off the right shoulder earlier this month and missed a start with an apparently unrelated bout of tendinitis.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels expected the rotation of Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana to help carry the team to a division title, and the outlook brightened when GM Jerry Dipoto added Zack Greinke to the mix in a deadline trade. But the Los Angeles starters went a combined 3-7 with a 6.49 ERA during an 18-game stretch in early August. The Angels fell from three games to nine games out behind the Rangers in the AL West during that span.
Weaver's 18-4 record, 2.79 ERA and 1.00 WHIP merit him a place in the conversation, but his 174 1/3 innings pitched, 2.7 WAR (via FanGraphs) and 6.81 strikeouts per nine innings aren't quite on a par with the competition.
He still earns a place in our top five over Rodney, whose eye-popping numbers in Tampa Bay might earn him more love on MVP ballots than in the Cy Young voting. Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter and Dennis Eckersley head a list of nine pitchers who have won Cy Youngs out of the bullpen, but it hasn't happened since Eric Gagne snagged a Cy with the Dodgers in 2003. The field of starting pitchers is simply too strong this year for Rodney to break that streak.