Last year, Justin Verlander won the American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards, threw his second no-hitter, won the pitching triple crown with the league’s lowest earned run average and the highest innings pitched and strikeout totals, won 24 games, and led his team to a division title with an emphatic 15-game cushion. (That’s been fun to type each of the hundreds of times I must have done it by now.) As recognition in the form of trophies and advertising deals rained down on Verlander this past offseason, scores celebrated the clear emergence of the biggest pitching star of our generation.
“Stop,” sabermetricians everywhere screamed, sucking away our fun with rationality, “look at that Batting Average on Balls in Play!” It was hard to argue—the BABIP check, while it yields crude analysis by itself, rarely fails to tell when someone is performing too far outside the norm to keep it up. It doesn’t take Bill James to look at a .237 BABIP next to a pre-2011 figure of .306 and surmise imminent regression to the mean.
Grey Papke, often a voice of reason to Tiger fans, wrote as part of the ‘2012 Prediction Series’ at Walkoff Woodward, “The only thing I can caution is that (Verlander’s) 2011 seems like a once in a lifetime season not likely to be repeated.” Similar advisements were issued by Bryan Craves here at Motor City Bengals, who wrote of past Cy Young winners and concluded, “Even the best of the best can’t expect to improve on near perfection.” Kurt Mensching at Bless You Boys wrote of Verlander as a controversial figure, but determined that yes, his BABIP would rise: “No one is claiming that the Tigers’ ace isn’t an elite pitcher,” he rightly stated, “just that a season like he had takes a lot of skill and a little luck. You can’t count on the luck to continue.”
So while we fans of the Detroit Tigers, along with those of good baseball no matter in what city it occurs, celebrated his accomplishments, the mentally sound among us—even the more optimistic of us—reluctantly accepted the sure reality of the future; things might never be quite so good for Verlander again.
Nine Verlander starts into his post-MVP era, we’re being forced by a league-leading 2.14 ERA and another near no-hitter to ask, were we wrong about his looming decline? The man himself thought so and told us via Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci two months ago, “People may say I got lucky last year on balls in play, but that’s not what happened,” Verlander combated his perceived detractors. “I can tell you I located a lot better last year. Putting pitches where I wanted them and not leaving them where a hitter can barrel them up was the biggest difference.” He seemed to assert that he, maybe more than most pitchers, had control over his BABIP. (The level of control pitchers have over the result of balls in play is a topic oft-debated by baseball analysts, thus far to no conclusion.)
Rob Neyer of Baseball Nation retorted on MLB Network in defense of his previous column on Verlander’s BABIP luck, “No, because he doesn’t have different stuff—he just got lucky. If you look at his numbers of strikeouts and walks, they were basically the same last year as 2009, with about a run difference in his ERA. That’s almost purely due to being luckier on balls in play.” Later, during an interview with WDFN-AM in Detroit, he further decried the idea that Verlander was transcendent of luck: “While there is something to be said about a pitcher’s ability to (miss the sweet spot of the bat), I have to say that Justin Verlander has not demonstrated that ability.”
Attempting to bridge the gap between Verlander and Neyer, MLive’s Justin Rogers wrote a column to be proud of, exhibiting that, while it’s irrational to think his BABIP would stay at his career-low (especially considering Detroit’s losses on defense), Verlander, contrary to Neyer’s criticism, actually did have “different stuff” during his career year. Rogers noted a decrease in fastballs, an increase in sliders, and a lower rate of pitches left over the plate, the combination of which resulting in fewer line drives and more ground balls (two key factors behind BABIP). It’s also pertinent that Verlander has learned to hold back early in games, increasing velocity throughout and often saving 100-mph heat for his final frame.
As I type this, Verlander’s BABIP has not regressed. Instead, it has fallen from .236 all the way to .219—since 1918, only 11 pitchers have qualified for the ERA title in a season with a BABIP under .219. As a result, his current ERA, FIP, and xFIP would all be career-bests if he could somehow sustain them.
Many of his batted ball numbers support an eventual rise in BABIP: his home run per fly ball rate is 4.6%, below his career low of 5.6%, set in 2010, and his career average of 7.6%. His infield hit rate is 2.9%, below his career low of 4.1%, set in 2006, and his career average of 5.8%. His line drive rate is 20.2%, as high as it has been since 21.2% in 2010 and above his career average of 19.6%.
On the other hand, his overall fly ball rate is 38.7%, as low as it has been since 35.2% in 2006 and below his career average of 40.3%. His ground ball rate is 41.1%, as high as it has been since he put up the same mark in 2007 and above his career average of 40.1%.
Still, given the 20.2% line drive rate, it’s much harder now to argue his BABIP is sustainable than it was last year when his LD% was at 17.7. (He hasn’t been lucky in every area, though: his left on base rate is a human 73.4%, only a tick above his career average of 73.3%.)
Where Verlander has been most impressive has not been on balls in play, though; his 9.09 strikeouts per nine innings and career-best 1.87 walks per nine combine for another career-best, this in a walks-to-strikeouts ratio of 4.86, currently bested by only two qualified pitchers—Colby Lewis and Jake Peavy—in the American League.
With peripheral numbers in mind, let’s look at where Verlander’s results stand compared to where he was through nine starts in 2011 (his BABIP through nine last year was .210):
Note that the nine-game sample is enough to include May 7th of last year, when he no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays. Verlander seems far enough ahead of his pace to withstand a BABIP accession. For those who like wins, he’s racking them up even with measly offensive support (an average of 3.78 runs have been scored by the Tigers in games Verlander starts) and a shaky bullpen to date (Jose Valverde stole a win from Verlander on opening day).
And we’re only getting started. Last year, Verlander gained steam at the end of May, throughout June, and into July, when he went 8-1 with a 0.75 ERA, 74 strikeouts, and ten walks in 72 innings over a nine-start stretch. No one’s asking him to duplicate that, but today, he looks more than capable.