by Mark Ross
Tuesday night, Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers shut out the Chicago White Sox 5-0. Not only did the win, coupled with the Cleveland Indians' loss at Texas, push the Tigers' lead in the American League Central to 12.5 games with two weeks to go in the regular season, but it also was Verlander's 23rd win of the season. At 23-5, he already has the most wins by any pitcher to win the Cy Young since Randy Johnson won 24 in the NL in 2002.
He's just the fourth pitcher in the AL with 23 wins since 1990. The previous three — Bob Welch (1990), Pedro Martinez (1999) and Barry Zito (2002) — all won the Cy Young Award that season. Add a no-hitter earlier in the season, a 2.36 ERA, microscopic 0.92 WHIP and a ridiculous 238 strikeouts in 236 innings to his resume and MLB officials may as well go ahead and finish putting his name on this year's AL Cy Young Award trophy to save them some time.
This has been Verlander's year, hands down, which is not to say other pitchers have put up some impressive numbers. In the AL, Jered Weaver (16-7, 2.44 ERA, 187 Ks) has kept the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the AL West race with the Texas Rangers, while C.C. Sabathia (19-8, 2.93 ERA, 216 Ks) has been the lone consistent starter for the New York Yankees. Not to be outdone, James Shields (15-10, 2.70 ERA, 210 Ks) has the most complete games (11) of any pitcher in baseball since 1999 and has tossed four shutouts as his Tampa Bay Rays have made a late-season charge for the AL wild card.
The Cy Young race in the National League is even more muddled with the list of contenders including the reigning winner (Roy Halladay), a former winner in the AL (Cliff Lee) and a couple of young guns in Clayton Kershaw and Ian Kennedy. Halladay (17-5, 2.44 ERA, 204 Ks, NL-leading seven complete games) and Lee (16-7, 2.44 ERA, 211 Ks, six CGs and a ML-best six shutouts) have teamed with fellow starters Cole Hamels (14-8, 2.71 ERA, 177 Ks) and rookie Vance Worley (11-2, 2.92 ERA) to lead the Philadelphia Phillies to baseball's best record.
Meanwhile, in the NL West, Kershaw (18-5, 2.36 ERA, 231 Ks in 213.2 IP) has been one of the few bright spots for the Los Angeles Dodgers this year and at 23, he could become the youngest Cy Young winner in either league since a 20-year-old Dwight "Doc" Gooden won the NL Cy Young in 1985. Not to be outdone, Kennedy (19-4, 2.99 ERA, 182 Ks) is just three years older than Kershaw (26) and has emerged as the ace for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are on the verge of going worst-to-first in the NL West this season.
Despite all of these impressive credentials, there's no debate that Verlander has been the best pitcher in the AL, if not all of baseball. Who has been the best pitcher in the NL this year? Let's save that for another time shall we? The more important question when it comes to Verlander's dominance on the mound is this — does him being the best pitcher in AL merit him being named the AL MVP?
Nine pitchers in baseball history have been named the Cy Young Award and MVP recipient in the same season. Six (Vida Blue, Roger Clemens, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Denny McLain and Don Newcombe) were starting pitchers, while three (Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers and Willie Hernandez) were relievers.
Eckersley was the last pitcher to be named MVP (AL, 1992), while Clemens was the last starting pitcher (AL, 1986). So should Verlander be the first in nearly 20 years to achieve this rare feat?
There's no denying the Tigers wouldn't be in the position they are, first place in the AL Central, without Verlander. The Tigers have won Verlander's last 11 starts, with him going at least six innings in each of these. His shortest outing of his 32 starts on the season is six innings and the most runs he has given up in any start is six, which was against Tampa Bay back on May 24.
Since then, he's gone 19-2 in 21 starts with a 1.83 ERA and only three outings of less than seven innings pitched. On May 25, the Tigers were 25-23 and six games behind the Indians in the AL Central. Entering Wednesday, the Tigers were 86-62, tying them with the Yankees for the second-most wins in the AL. Coincidence?
Detroit starting pitchers have combined for 67 wins, second-most in the AL, and a 4.07 ERA, which is seventh in the league. The only other team in playoff contention with a higher ERA for its starters is the Boston Red Sox (4.26).
If you were to take out Verlander's numbers (2.36 ERA in 236 IPs) the Tigers' starting pitchers' ERA would balloon to 4.67, which would put them second-to-last in the AL, ahead of only Kansas City (4.95) and Baltimore (5.33). Further, Verlander's consistency and durability as a starter has saved the Tigers' bullpen, which has pitched the ninth-most innings among AL pens.
Considering the relievers have a collective ERA of 4.04, putting them in 11th place among AL relievers, that's a good thing.
Offensively, Detroit's hitters are no slouch as the lineup led by Miguel Cabrera (.332, 26 HR, 97 RBI, 101 R), Victor Martinez (.324, 11 HR, 94 RBI, 71 R) and Jhonny Peralta (.306, 19 HR, 80 RBI, 62 R) have scored the fourth-most runs in the AL and have the third-best team batting average.
However, the Tigers' offensive production is still a far cry from the production of the three teams who have scored more runs — Red Sox, Yankees and Rangers — who also just happen to be the three other AL playoff teams, if the season ended today.
To put it another way, Verlander's Run Support Average of 5.61 puts him in 29th place among starting pitchers in the AL. Among those who have received more run support is three of his teammates (Brad Penny, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer), not to mention all five Rangers starters, three Yankees (including Sabathia) and two Red Sox.
Outside of Verlander, the only starting pitcher in the AL whose done done more with less support is Weaver (4.33 RS). So not only has Verlander been productive, consistent and durable, he's also been highly efficient. It doesn't get more "valuable" than that does it?
In the end, the AL MVP vote will most likely come down to the debate of everyday position player vs. a pitcher who goes out to the mound once every five days. And there certainly is no lack of candidates among position players for this year's AL MVP with a list that includes (in no particular order):
Jose Bautista (.304, 42 HR, 100 RBI, 100 R)
Jacoby Ellsbury (.321, 27 HR, 94 RBI, 108 R, 36 SB)
Adrian Gonzalez (.340, 25 HR, 109 RBI, 102 R)
Robinson Cano (.305, 26 HR, 111 RBI, 96 R)
Curtis Granderson (.268, 39 HR, 111 RBI, 128 R, 24 SB)
Mark Teixeira (.248, 37 HR, 104 RBI, 85 R)
However the fact that Bautista's Jays aren't in playoff contention and the Red Sox and Yankees each have multiple candidates, a strong argument could be made for Verlander, as he is clearly the Tigers' most valuable player and the best pitcher in all of baseball this season, which incidentally has been called "The Year of the Pitcher."
In fact, it's a shame that the AL MVP votes will be cast before the postseason even starts. Because as it stands now, Verlander would face off against Ellsbury, Gonzalez and the rest of the Red Sox in the AL Division Series and should the Tigers make it to the AL Championship Series, their opponent would be either the Rangers, the reigning AL champions, or Cano, Granderson, Teixeira and the rest of the Yankees. What better way to prove who is the most "valuable" then to have the best square off against the best, no?