The tenth anniversary of former Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander’s second no-hitter is coming up on May 7. This isn’t a story about that game. It is, however, a story about Verlander’s best start in 2011.
Game Score is a metric that was created by influential statistician Bill James as a way to determine how effectively a starting pitcher performed in a game. His formula is still used by Baseball-Reference. Tom Tango, another notable numbers guru (who now serves as MLB Advanced Media’s Senior Database Architect of Stats), came up with a modified version of Game Score that is used by FanGraphs. According to each, Justin Verlander’s best start for the Detroit Tigers in 2011 happened on June 14 against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park.
It was clear and 71 degrees on a Tuesday night in downtown Detroit, excellent weather for a ballgame. The Tigers and the Indians were locked in a virtual first-place tie in the American League Central. Detroit was 36-30 (.545), and Cleveland was 35-29 (.547). The Indians had been leading the division since early April, but the Tigers finally crawled to the top and claimed a share of the lead three days earlier. Since then, mere percentage points separated the two rivals. This was a key series for Verlander and his teammates. JV was the right guy to lead the charge in the opener of the three-game set.
The Tigers won five of Verlander’s six starts after he no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays on May 7. In that span, he struck out 38 and walked only seven in 45 2/3 innings of work. Opponents hit a feeble .201/.236/.311 against Verlander in those games. He was coming off a solid performance (one run on five hits and a walk in eight innings) against the Seattle Mariners at home on June 9. That night, JV reached double figures in strikeouts (10) for the first time in 2011.
Grady Sizemore led off for the Indians, just as he did on the Fourth of July in 2005. That was the night that Verlander made his big league debut. In that very first encounter, at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, young Justin got Grady to pop out to short. Sizemore’s most memorable at-bat against Verlander came in the bottom of the ninth on May 8, 2009. With one on and one out in a game that the Tigers led 1-0, Sizemore took Verlander deep to center field. Curtis Granderson’s phenomenal, perfectly-timed, leaping catch robbed the would-be Indians hero of a walk-off home run.
Sizemore took Verlander’s first pitch, a four-seam fastball, to begin their latest matchup. It caught the outer edge of the plate for strike one. Four pitches later, the Tiger froze the Indian with a curve and struck him out. Verlander’s first offering to Carlos Santana backed the left-handed hitter off the plate. Santana turned to avoid the second one, which was up and in. Home plate umpire Tim McClelland ruled that it hit him, although Carlos seemed unsure if the ball had actually grazed him or not. Michael Brantley tapped a bouncer to third baseman Don Kelly, who was able to get the force play on Santana at second. Brantley was able to beat second baseman Ryan Raburn’s relay throw to Miguel Cabrera at first base, though. A couple pickoff attempts kept the runner honest. Verlander struck out a swinging Asdrubal Cabrera with a curveball.
In the top of the second, Shin-Soo Choo put a charge into a Verlander fastball and sent it soaring to left-center. Austin Jackson, with the sun in his eyes and the fence rapidly approaching behind him, jumped up at the warning track in front of the visitors bullpen and gloved the ball. It wasn’t a dramatic play, like Jackson’s over-the-shoulder catch in the ninth inning of the ‘Armando Galarraga game’ against the Indians one year earlier or Granderson’s grab in Cleveland two years earlier, but it got the job done. Sizemore, the victim of Granderson’s thievery, acknowledged that Jackson’s catch against Shoo was “a great play”.
The inning continued for Orlando Cabrera. He grounded out to shortstop Ramon Santiago on the first pitch that he saw. Verlander struck out Travis Buck, who whiffed on a changeup. The Tigers’ right-hander threw only nine pitches in his first 1-2-3 inning of the game. He also set the Indians down in order in the third. Matt LaPorta grounded out to Santiago. Verlander struck out Jack Hannahan, who played three games for the Tigers in May 2006, including one that rookie JV started. Sizemore struck out again but went down swinging this time. It was the changeup that got both Hannahan and Sizemore.
With a Justin on the mound for Detroit, Cleveland countered with one of its own. Righty Justin Masterson kept the Tigers off the board in the first two innings despite giving up a pair of walks and a single. He would be facing the top of the order again in the bottom of the third. Jackson’s leadoff single set the tone. Kelly popped up to shallow right field. Second baseman Orlando Cabrera went after it and was spun around twice in his pursuit. The ball hit his glove and ricocheted away safely. It was ruled an error. Brennan Boesch singled to load the bases for Miguel Cabrera. Miggy’s sacrifice fly sent Jackson home with the game’s first run. Kelly tagged on the play but barely beat the relay throw to third.
That brought up Victor Martinez, who was in his first season with the Tigers. Victor, a free-agent signing in November 2010, had been a productive addition to the Tigers’ offense. He was hitting .318/.368/.500 at game time. Prior to his arrival in Detroit, Cleveland had traded V-Mart to Boston for the pitcher that he was now facing. Masterson walked Martinez to reload the bases. Rookie Andy Dirks, who singled in the second, lined another single into left field. That plated Kelly, and the sacks remained full for Alex Avila.
Avila was in the midst of what turned out to be a career year. He was batting a robust .301/.362/.554 at the time. With nine home runs, 14 doubles, and 35 RBI added in, he was one of the hottest hitting catchers in baseball. It was All-Star voting season, and Avila ranked second in American League balloting. He trailed Russell Martin of the Yankees by about 619,000 votes. Avila lofted a fly ball to deep left-center field. Brantley, playing center in his first full season with the Indians, made an impressive running catch to rob Avila of an extra-base hit. Boesch scored the Tigers’ third run of the inning on the sac fly.
Verlander took the mound in the fourth inning armed with his first lead of the night. He got Santana to wave at and miss a two-strike fastball that was high and outside. Brantley made the hurler work and became the first Indian to reach a three-ball count. The battle, which lasted eight pitches, ended with Brantley swinging at a changeup that he had no chance of touching. Asdrubal Cabrera grounded to Raburn for the third out. Verlander threw 16 pitches in his busiest frame of the game. Still, it was another 1-2-3 inning. So was the fifth. Choo took a fastball low in the zone for a called third strike. Kelly fielded a hard-hit shot off the bat of Orlando Cabrera and had plenty of time to make the throw for the second out.
Buck flew out to Jackson to end the inning, and Tigers fans responded with their most rousing cheers of the game. #MustSeeJV was a popular hashtag during Verlander’s reign in Detroit. That’s exactly the kind of performance that the 28,128 at Comerica Park was watching on this ideal summer evening. The Tigers’ ace mowed through the Indians again in the sixth. LaPorta flew out to Jackson. JV blew a 98 mile-an-hour heater past Hannahan, who whiffed for strike three. The crowd got revved up when Verlander got ahead in the count, 0-2, on Sizemore, but the next pitch was a ball. That was just a blip. Once again, the pitcher froze his foe with a curveball. Sizemore’s third strikeout of the ninth was also Verlander’s 10th. For the first time all season, he struck out 10 in back-to-back starts.
Santana flew out to right-center to open the seventh. Jackson had been playing him in straightaway center. The speedy Tigers defender covered a lot of ground in a hurry to track the ball down and make the catch in the gap. It was Jackson’s fourth putout of the night. He was the only Detroit outfielder to make one. Brantley made Verlander work once again. For the second time in the game, he worked the count full. This time, he got the walk. Brantley became the Indians’ first baserunner since Santana in the first inning. That snapped a string of five straight 1-2-3 innings for JV. Asdrubal Cabrera grounded to Miguel Cabrera at first base. Miggy touched the bag for the out and made the throw to a waiting Santiago at second base. Santiago tagged Brantley to complete a quick and slick 3-6 double play.
Masterson had been shutting the Tigers’ hitters down since their three-run rally in the third. He retired Boesch to begin the bottom of the seventh, then gave up back-to-back singles to Cabrera and Martinez. Indians manager Manny Acta brought in left-handed reliever Rafael Perez. Tigers manager Jim Leyland opted against sending up a pinch-hitter for Dirks, a left-handed hitter. Dirks’ rewarded his skipper’s faith by lashing his third single of the game into left-center. A bad relay throw allowed Miggy to score. The Tigers boosted their lead to 4-0.
The Tigers made a couple defensive changes behind Verlander for the top of the eighth. Danny Worth took over for Raburn at second base, and Casper Wells replaced Boesch in right field. Choo led off by grounding out to Kelly. Orlando Cabrera stepped up. He fouled off Verlander’s first pitch, a curveball. Then he ripped a 99-mph fastball into center field for the Indians’ first hit of the game. It was a solid line drive, but the toughest critic in the house was the man on the mound. Verlander remarked,
"“I probably could have thrown a better pitch there. There’s probably a little inkling of disappointment in the back of my mind.”"
The Comerica Park faithful rewarded Verlander with a prolonged standing ovation that lasted into his first pitch to Buck, a changeup that got a swing and a miss. JV struck him out. The inning ended on a force play at second after LaPorta grounded to Santiago on the only slider Verlander threw all night. He returned to the mound to begin the top of the ninth. Detroit’s workhorse was going for his third complete game of the season and the first since his no-hitter in Toronto. Hannahan grounded to Santiago for the first out.
With that, Verlander completed three pretty successful trips through the Indians’ lineup. In 2011, the third time through an opponent’s lineup was a breeze for him. The best that the opposition could muster that season in their third shot at him was a meager .208/.260/.336. By comparison, in JV’s Rookie of the Year season (2006), opponents hit .308/.353/.529 the third time through. He’d grown so much as a pitcher since then. Of course, even in a season as successful as this one, Verlander was more hittable the fourth time he took on someone’s batting order. That wouldn’t be a problem in this game. There wouldn’t be many more Indians to face.
Sizemore took a 95-mph fastball for strike one. He took a bad swing at a changeup for strike two. The next pitch looked just like the last, and the Indians’ leadoff hitter missed that one too. It was the fourth time in the game that Verlander struck him out. The crowd loved it. Only two others, Tony Graffanino (June 12, 2007 in the no-hitter against the Milwaukee Brewers) and Russell Branyan (August 19, 2010), had been victimized by JV in such fashion before. He racked up a dozen Ks against the visitors from Cleveland. At the time, that was one away from tying his career-high (which now stands at 15). The Tigers’ star pitcher had struck out at least one Indian in every inning except the seventh.
That was the last time that Sizemore faced Verlander. Through 2011, only A.J. Pierzynski had more plate appearances (69) against the Tigers’ right-hander than Sizemore (66). Until this game, Grady had a matching 12 hits and 12 strikeouts against Justin. Over the years, Sizemore had gotten a good look at all the developments and improvements that Verlander had made since that debut start in 2005. Sizemore said,
"“He definitely mixes it up well, and he’s locating his heater a lot more effectively. He’s not leaving fastballs out over the plate to hit. He’s mixing it up. He did a great job of throwing the changeup tonight. He threw some good curves too. He’s not giving you anything that’s easy to hit.”"
There was one down and two to go. Verlander missed on his first pitch to Santana, a 97-mph fastball. He got a swing and a miss on a changeup, then Santana fouled off a 96-mph fastball. The crowd was on its feet, anticipating a big strikeout to end the game. Instead, Santana blooped a curveball into left field for a single. Brantley, who has been Verlander’s teammate with the Houston Astros since 2019, was up. He took a 96-mph fastball for ball one. JV came right back with a 97-mph fastball. Brantley grounded it to Worth, who made the game-ending play. The Tigers, led by their maestro on the mound, defeated the Indians, 4-0.
Using Bill James’ Game Score formula (Baseball-Reference), Verlander scored a 94 for his performance against the Indians in this game. Only three starts in his career (two with Detroit) had higher Game Scores. He scored a 95 in his no-hitter against the Brewers in 2007 and also in a near no-hitter at home against the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012. Verlander’s third no-hitter, thrown as the Astros’ ace in 2019, got a Game Score of 100. (Verlander scored a 90 in his 2011 no-hitter.)
Using Tom Tango’s Game Score formula (FanGraphs), Verlander scored a 99 for this winning performance. His 2007 no-hitter was another 99. Only two starts were higher. He scored a 100 in his near no-no against the Pirates. The Game Score in his 2019 no-hitter was 108. (Verlander scored a 95 in his 2011 no-hitter.) Regardless of the metric used, this start facing Cleveland in the middle of June 2011 was one of the best in what may someday be a Hall of Fame career.
Verlander beat Cleveland with three sharp weapons. He got 10 outs (six strikeouts) with the changeup, nine outs with the four-seam fastball (three strikeouts), and six outs with the curveball (three strikeouts). He faced 30 hitters and threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of them. Through his 14 starts prior to this one, he’d averaged 115 pitches and 75 strikes (65%). In this outing, he threw 117 pitches and 82 strikes (70%). The Indians’ game plan of loading up the lineup with lefty bats (five natural left-handed hitters and two switch-hitters) proved to be futile. Those seven guys weren’t alone in their struggles. Lefty hitters throughout baseball put up a .174/.233/.271 slash line facing JV that season. Overall, the Detroit ace was pleased with his latest achievement. He didn’t seemed phased that he came so close to another no-hitter, nor did he seem phased that he lost it. Verlander explained,
"“I believe, as a starting pitcher, you have to have that mentality. You go out there, and you don’t expect to give up a hit. Once you give up one, (you say) ‘Okay. Let’s go. Not another one’. You give up two, three, ten, it doesn’t matter. The point is that every batter you face, you’ve got to feel like you can get him out…I felt really good, obviously. I really felt like my changeup and curveball were good tonight, and my changeup, especially with all the left-handers they have in their lineup. I really felt like I was able to go to it pretty much whenever I wanted, and that was beneficial for me. I’ve been trying to get that to come back for me. It’s been a little bit flat and up in the zone lately so I was trying to get it to have a little bit of bite and I feel like I did a pretty good job of that tonight.”"
Verlander continued to carve up opponents for the rest of the season. He made 34 starts in 2011 and led the majors with 24 wins. That was the most for a Tigers pitcher since Mickey Lolich won 25 in 1971. JV also led the major leagues in innings pitched (251), strikeouts (250), ERA+ (172), and WHIP (0.920). Verlander’s 2.40 ERA led the American League. His ERA, number of innings, and win total from that year of brilliance are still career highs. He averaged a crisp 9.0 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9), which led Detroit’s starters. So far, 2011 is the only season in his career in which he pitched two shutouts.
JV nabbed all 28 first-place votes in the AL Cy Young Award balloting. He also dominated the voting for the league’s MVP award with 13 first-place votes, compared to four for runner-up Jacoby Ellsworth of the Boston Red Sox.
The Tigers took over the AL Central lead for the first time in the 2011 campaign with the 4-0 triumph over the Indians. After dismantling the division rivals from Cleveland, Verlander proclaimed,
"“Here we stand in first place. We need to continue to play good baseball and never look back. Don’t worry about the club behind us. Just look forward and continue to win baseball games and make those guys do something unbelievable to catch us. We’ve got the talent. We should win a lot of games.”"
The Indians beat the Tigers, 6-4, in the next game, which put both teams right back into their virtual tie. Detroit was finally able to knock Cleveland out of first place for good in late July. From there, the Tigers separated themselves from the pack in August. They clinched their first of four straight AL Central Division championships in September and finished the regular season with 95 wins. Verlander, worth 8.6 Wins Above Replacement (per Baseball-Reference calculations), had a monumental impact on the team’s success in 2011.