You know that thing that just happened in Oakland? You know, where Justin Verlander started twice and gave up zero runs in 15 innings? Made everybody think he was going to throw a no-hitter in one of those games?
If that had happened in August, you would have been surprised. I would have been surprised. We both would have been surprised.
But it didn't happen in August. It happened in October, and none of us should have been surprised.
Justin Verlander was an All-Star in July, and yet we spent much of the season saying, "Hey, what's the matter with Justin Verlander?" For much of the season, Justin Verlander wasn't the Tigers' best pitcher. Okay, so that was Max Scherzer's fault. But for much of the season, he wasn't the Tigers' second-best pitcher, or even the Tigers THIRD-best pitcher, and there are only so many nice things you can say about Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister.
By the end of August, Verlander had started 28 games and the Tigers were 13-15 in those games. Yeah, poor run support. But his ERA was 3.73 ERA in those games, no great shakes. He was really good. He was better than his record or his ERA suggested. But no matter how you figured, he wasn't quite the same pitcher he'd been in 2011 and '12, when he'd been a Cy Young and an MVP, and gone 41-13 with a 2.52 ERA, and basically defined American League greatness.
We didn't really see that guy from April through August.
Then came September. In September, the Tigers actually lost five of Verlander's six starts. In those six starts, though, he struck out five times more than he walked, and gave up just a couple of home runs. And his fastball, which had been a tick or two slower for most of the season, came back up a tick or two.
Granted, most of his starts came against weak-hitting teams: Cleveland, Miami, Minnesota, Seattle, and Kansas City twice. Those numbers do come with a grain of salt. But Verlander was throwing slightly harder, and he was controlling the strike zone slightly better than before.
And by the season, where was he? Believe it or not, he was almost exactly as great as usual.
No, not ERA-wise. Not wins-and-losses wise. But in 2011 and '12, Verlander struck out 9.0 batters for every nine innings; in 2013, he struck out 8.9 per nine. In 2011 and '12, Verlander gave up 0.8 home runs per nine innings; in '13, he gave up 0.8 home runs per nine innings. His walk rate was a little higher this year. To equal his walk rate of 2011 and '12, Verlander would have to have issued 21 fewer walks than he actually did. Which actually doesn't seem terribly little. But it's less than a walk per game. It's not meaningless. But a slight increase in Verlander's walk rate shouldn't have been enough to make us think he'd become a truly different pitcher.
Well, that depends on how you define truly. Even with the big September, Verlander's innings were down. In 2012, he'd tossed six complete games; in 2013, he didn't complete a single game all season. But that was due to inflated pitch counts, right? Some of which was due, no doubt, to those pesky "extra" walks. But how much was due to worse luck? In 2011 and '12, the enemy batted .256 on balls in play ... You know how absurdly low that is, right? I know there's some percentage of you, reading this right now, that doesn't want to believe this, but Verlander was at least a little bit lucky in those seasons (and especially in 2011, when the figure was .237).
In 2013, the averages smacked him around a bit. They didn't gobsmack him, but the enemy did bat .316 this season on balls in play. Thirty-seven pitchers qualified for the American League ERA title this season. Verlander's BABiP allowed was the fourth highest. You can argue that he pitched differently this season, and he might agree with you.
But did he pitch differently enough to have the fourth-worst BABiP allowed in the entire league? On the merits? You can argue that, too, if you like. But the burden of proof you'll bear is terribly, terribly heavy. My burden of proof, as I argue that Justin Verlander remains a truly outstanding pitcher, is much, much lighter. And this was true even before that week in Oakland in early October.
Now, though? Now everybody knows. Now everybody, if forced to choose between Justin Verlander and his teammate who's going to win the Cy Young Award, perhaps unanimously, would have to think real, really hard.
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