DETROIT : Justin Verlander #35 of the Detroit Tigers warms up prior to the start of the second inning of the game against the New York Mets at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Justin Verlander was arguably June's top pitcher, in many ways due to his ability to dominate late in games consistently.
But Cliff Lee wasn't the best pitcher of the month.
That honor has to go to Justin Verlander. Verlander gave up five runs -- four more than Lee -- but did so while throwing seven more innings, walking two fewer hitters, and striking out 25 more batters. June just continued what has been a fantastic 2011 campaign for Verlander, as he already has a no-hitter (and nearly a second one) to his credit, and is doing his best to lead the American League in just about everything he can.
The Tigers are just past the midpoint of the season, and Verlander has a league-leading 18 starts and has already thrown 135-2/3 innings. He is averaging 7-2/3 innings each start, a number that, if extrapolated to 35 starts, would put him at 264 innings for the year. Roy Halladay was the last pitcher to throw over 260 innings, with 266 in his Cy Young 2003 season with the Blue Jays -- incidentally, Halladay has 127-1/3 frames through 17 starts this year, so he is on pace to keep Verlander from staking claim to that by himself.
Give Verlander 36 starts, a figure that is not out of the realm of possibility given the Tigers are competing for the American League Central title and may try to squeeze an extra start out of him, and he is on pace for 271 innings. He would be the first to 270 innings in the regular season since Randy Johnson did it in 1999 with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Even if his pace slows a bit, he'll join select company, as just 25 pitcher-seasons have had 240-plus innings in a year since 2000 (three of which are Halladay, who nearly had four with 239-1/3 in 2002). While there may be cries that Verlander is being overworked, he has been proving himself one of those pitchers capable of shouldering a heavy workload. As Halladay has shown over his now 14-year career, these pitchers do pop up every now and again, and Verlander may very well be the workhorse of his generation.
Verlander is that rare pitcher who gets stronger as the game goes on, and maintains his mechanics seemingly regardless of the pitch count. This isn't a suggestion that he throw 125 pitches each time out, but that he is capable of going there without hurting himself or throwing easily hittable pitches. Verlander's velocity increases as the game goes on: in his no-hitter, he was averaging 95 mph in the first inning, 93, in the second, 94 in the third, and ratcheted all the way up to 99, 99, and 98 for the final three frames. While adrenaline often plays a role in a no-hitter, that's just what Verlander does -- he even avoided the "no-hitter hangover" effect in his starts following that outing, and was arguably even better in June than on that hitless May day.
He is averaging 116 pitches per start, and has stayed in that range most of the time, with few extremes in either direction. He had one start with 132 pitches, and another with 127, but he has also had three starts with fewer than 110 pitches to help counterbalance those efforts in terms of total pitch count. Considering the 132-pitch effort was his final May outing before his fantastic June, it may be safe to say there was no hangover effect from that, either.
Earlier in the 2000s, the preventative measures taken to make sure pitchers were no longer abused by their managers and left on the mound for absurd pitch totals was very important. Setting the bar at around 100 pitches made sense, as things were so extreme that equal measures needed to be taken in the other direction. Not every pitcher loses their effectiveness or tires at 100 pitches, though, as some may not see any ill effects until they hit the 110-pitch range, or even 120, and there are others still who can't even hit 100 before fatigue sets in. Pitchers like Verlander, Halladay, and Tim Lincecum fit the bill of those who can work harder than your average hurler, and in another time, we may have seen them reach the kinds of heights that those longing for the days of old, when pitchers pitched until their arms fell off in the middle of an inning.
Thanks to all of the research done that shows that treating pitchers like that in the past was abusive, people tend to get overly jumpy when someone like Verlander consistently throws 115 pitches or more. But just because your average arm can't handle it, doesn't mean no arm can. Verlander has a special arm, in more ways than just in terms of his ability to rear back and approach triple-digits in the ninth inning, or his ability to miss bats. He is a workhorse, a throwback in many ways, but without the collateral damage.