Justin Verlander Justin Verlander

Questioning the Elite-ness of Justin Verlander


After an incredibly disappointing 2008 season, Justin Verlander took a big step forward for the 2009 and 2010 seasons. I don’t think anyone would deny that he’s now among the top class of American League pitchers, but I get the sense that many Tigers fans don’t consider him to be “elite” just yet.

Here’s the caption from a photo from a recent MLive article by Matt Sussman:

"The next two years will be crucial for the legacy of Justin Verlander. Will he be a hard-thrower, or can he become elite?"

The way I see it, those in this camp could be making any one of three arguments.

A. The way he’s pitched over the last two seasons (combined) has been at a sub-elite level.
B. He’s been pitching at an elite level the last couple of years, but he hasn’t done it long enough to be solidly “elite”.
C. You need to be a solid Cy Young candidate before you can be an “elite” starting pitcher.

I wouldn’t subscribe to any of these arguments – I think he is already “elite” (whatever that exactly means anyway) – but if I was required to choose from the above, I’d go with number ‘B’. Because I think that he has been one of the best or two or three pitchers in the American League over the past two years.

Let’s look at some combined stats from the 2009 and 2010 seasons.

If we’re looking at ERA, Justin ranks 8th in the AL at 3.41 over the previous two seasons. This supports argument ‘A’. ERA says that he has certainly been very good – among the best in the league – but probably not good enough to be considered in the elite class. Guys in front of him include Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Jon Lester, David Price, and Jered Weaver. They’re all good pitchers, but I wouldn’t call Lester, Price, and Weaver elite either.

But I don’t like looking only at ERA when we’re only talking about two years worth of numbers. The quality of your defense has a lot to do with ERA, so let’s turn to a couple fielding independent type metrics.

Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) ranks Verlander third in the AL over the last two seasons (behind Greinke and Lee, but just in front of King Felix), and true runs allwed (tERA) ranks him fourth (behind Hernandez, Greinke, and Lee).

So, according to sabermetric ERA-type stats, he has ranked among or above the guys that are probably considered to make up the elite class.

But if we’re really trying to nail down an elite class, we’re probably interested in who can provide the most value to their ball club. The guys (like Sabathia) that can be a team’s workhorse while still pitching at a very high level (not just an innings-eater) provide the best value.

Over the last two years, only Hernandez and Sabathia have logged more innings than Verlander (with Greinke next). From a total value (FanGraphs WAR) perspective, only Greinke (14.7 WAR) has provided more value than Verlander (14.6 WAR) has since the 2009 season began.

So, does all of this make Justin Verlander an “elite” starting pitcher? I think so, but if not he’s definitely right on the cusp. It would be nice to see him have an ’09 Greinke or ’10 Hernandez type year, but I’ll take the consistency that he’s shown the last couple of seasons.

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