Tuesday afternoon in Florida, Justin Verlander pitched against the Atlanta Braves.
For a reigning American League Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award winner, Verlander didn't pitch well. Struggling to throw strikes in the third inning, Verlander gave up two runs.
Not a big thing, obviously. Especially considering that Verlander entered Tuesday having struck out 13 batters this spring, while walking only one. He's fine.
In the midst of that shaky third inning, ESPN's broadcast crew discussed Verlander's excellence:
Orel Hershiser: Yeah, I really think he went from a guy who had exceptional tools that was getting great production to a guy who really understood how to pitch, and understood himself and how to apply it to the game. His ERA was 2.40, and including that 2.40, his career ERA is 3.54. So he's 1.14 lower than a career ERA, and he had 251 innings at 2.40. So he made a huge jump.
And this off-season, he's not thinking, "Oh, I'm going to rest on my success." He came in in shape, no rubber-chicken dinner circuit, doing the speaking engagements...
Buster Olney: Justin Verlander got a lot of appearance opportunities in the off-season. But he said he didn't want to do that; he didn't trust his success. When you talk to his teammates, they were greatly impressed with his attitude when he came into camp, how he was going right back to work.
Alex Avila said, with a laugh, "He's talking about being better than he was last year."
Well, no. He's probably not going to be better.
This shouldn't be a controversial prediction. Most Cy Young winners don't fare as well the next season; most award winners in general don't fare as well the next season, for the simple reason that most award winners perform at least slightly better than their true level of ability, and tend to regress some the next season.
A few moments after the above discussion, the guys in the booth went back to Buster Olney down on the field ...
For Justin Verlander, the turning point, he believes, in controlling his emotions actually took place on May 7th of last year, when he threw his no-hitter. He says, "I can't really explain it," but during that game he suddenly began to back off, and feel like he was in control, slowing down, listening to his catcher, and he said during that game he told himself, "Remember this feeling."
I wouldn't begin to suggest that Verlander did not learn to control his emotions last spring, or that controlling his emotions didn't help him become a better pitcher. But while I hate to contradict Orel Hershiser, Verlander did not become a significantly better pitcher last season than he'd already been.
Granted, Verlander absolutely has grown as a pitcher. In 2006, his first full season in the majors, Verlander somehow managed to strike out only six batters per nine innings despite routinely throwing fastballs in the middle and upper 90s. Exactly as he does now. But Verlander made some adjustments to his repertoire and (presumably) his pitch selection, and now he's a true power/strikeout pitcher.
That happened well before 2011, though. In 2009, Verlander struck out 10 batters per nine, tops in the majors. His strikeout-to-walk ratio that season was 4.3; last season, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 4.5.
Both of those figures were outstanding. In both seasons, he gave up roughly one home run per nine innings.
The only qualitative difference between those two seasons? His ground-ball rate was 36 percent in 2009 and 40 percent in 2011 ... which really isn't much of a difference, actually. Oh, and he issued slightly fewer walks, too.
There are three reasons why Justin Verlander went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA last season:
1. He's an excellent pitcher.
2. He gave up a .236 batting average on balls in play (BABiP).
3. Eighty percent of the baserunners who reached base against him didn't score.
No. 1 isn't going to change in 2012.
No. 2 is going to change, probably a lot. Verlander's .236 BABiP was the lowest in the majors; this season, Verlander's BABiP will take a hard turn toward .285, his career mark. Because that's what BABiPs do.
No. 3 is going to change, though probably not by a lot. His career left-on-base percentage is 73, which is a pretty good estimate for what will happen this year.
There's a lot of play in ERA, as you know. There's a lot of play in wins and losses, which you also know. But we can predict, with a high level of confidence, that Justin Verlander will not win 24 games again, and will not post an ERA closer to 2 than 3.
In fact, we may predict with some confidence that he'll win 15-19 games, with an ERA right around 3. He might actually be the best pitcher in the American League again. But he's not likely to be better, or to win another Cy Young Award. Justin Verlander's an excellent pitcher. But he's not Roger Clemens or Greg Maddux or Roy Halladay. Not quite. Not yet, anyway.