MLB Notebook: Verlander's 2011 was epic
Tigers ace earned esteemed place among all-time greats
In the 111-year history of the American League, certain pitching seasons rise above the rest: Walter Johnson's extraordinarily dominating 1913 campaign, Dutch Leonard's improbable year in '14, Pedro Martinez's twin gems in '99 and 2000, the back-to-back masterpieces from Lefty Grove in 1930 and '31, Roger Clemens' two Triple Crown seasons in '97 and '98, Gaylord Perry's sneaky brilliant year in '72, Ed Walsh's gargantuan run in '08, Vida Blue's rocket-like ascension in '71 and the equally meteoric rise by Smoky Joe Wood in '12, Ron Guidry's lightning-bolt year in '78, Denny McLain's go-where-no-one-has-gone-since season in '68, and so on.
In most of cases, these years are lifted above the rest by a host of qualities mixing together: age, the volume of work, dominance among one's peers, a special narrative that takes on a life of its own. Also notable among this selected group of seasons is that only a handful came after the AL added the designated-hitter rule for the 1973 season. During the summer of 2011, 28-year-old right-hander Justin Verlander made his case for a definitive place among the more iconic pitching seasons in the AL over the past 39 seasons.
Like the sagas of many of the pitchers mentioned above, Verlander's bid evolved from a compelling blend of dominance, a magnetic streak of performance, an illuminating, historic day and a tie-it-all-together statistical storyline that somehow made the year-long performance greater than the sum of its parts.
Let's take a look at some of the parts of Verlander's season and place them alongside the components that made some of the other DH-era pitching performances in the AL so resonant.
Ron Guidry, 1978
Even though the 1978 Yankees were 10 games out of first place when they finished the numerical first half of the season, this internally depressing reality was in no way reflective of the work being offered by their southpaw ace. Guidry opened the season by winning his first 13 decisions -- the fourth-longest streak to begin a year by an AL pitcher in the live-ball era. Over this run of 17 starts, Guidry owned a 1.75 ERA and threw six complete games, and the Yankees went 16-1. The apex of this stretch came on June 17, when Gator gained a new nickname -- Louisiana Lightning -- after Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto uttered the phrase during an 18-strikeout performance against the Angels. The 18 K's were one shy of the Major League record for a left-hander and gave Guidry his iconic performance. For the season, Guidry led the AL in eight high-end categories, posted the lowest ERA in the Majors since '68 (an ERA tied with Martinez's in 2000 for the lowest in the AL in the DH era), tied Babe Ruth's AL record from '16 for most shutouts by a left-hander, and authored the AL's best winning percentage since '37.
Pedro Martinez, 2000
Not only did Martinez lead the league in an exceptional number of categories in 2000 (a total of 10), the dominance within those categories is still startling and capable of eliciting 10,000-watt smiles of remembrance. Since 1901, for all Major League pitchers, his 291 ERA+ was the best, his WHIP was the lowest, his hits per nine were the fourth lowest and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was the fourth best. Pedro did all of this in a swirling season in which AL teams averaged the sixth-most runs per game in league history. Like Guidry's year, this iconic season was apparent right away; through his first 11 starts of the season, Martinez was 9-2, owned a 0.95 ERA, was holding batters to a .152 batting average and a .199 slugging percentage and had nearly twice as many strikeouts (114) as he'd allowed hits and walks combined (61). Picking out one specific special game during the 2000 season is impossible; there was the two-hit shutout with 15 strikeouts and no walks against the Orioles on May 12, the one-hit shutout with 13 strikeouts and no walks against the Devil Rays on Aug. 29, the 17-strikeout, 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay on May 6, and the brilliant four-hit shutout on Memorial Day weekend, when he went up against the Yankees and Clemens, and beat his archrivals, 2-0.
|Pitcher:||Ron Guidry||Roger Clemens||Pedro Martinez||Justin Verlander|
In his first two months out of a Red Sox uniform, Clemens didn't lose. A 10-0 start with the Blue Jays propelled a first-half record in which the 34-year-old right-hander posted a 13-3 mark, a 1.69 ERA and more strikeouts than innings pitched. And then to open the second half of his season, he was back at Fenway Park for the first time as an opponent: striking out 16, allowing one run and improving to 14-3. For the season, Clemens' ERA was the lowest mark in the AL since his own 1.93 in 1990, his ERA+ (222) still stands as the sixth best in the AL since '01, and his 292 strikeouts are the second most for any pitcher in the AL (since '01) while in his age-34 season or older. Among all Major League pitchers in the modern era, only Martinez in '99, Johnson in '12 and Clemens in '97 have ever racked up so many strikeouts with such a good ERA+. Besides winning the pitching Triple Crown (becoming the first AL hurler to do so since Hal Newhouser in '45 and the first AL right-hander since Bob Feller in '40 to lead the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts), Clemens also led the AL in six other categories.
Justin Verlander, 2011
Verlander didn't lose a game in May (3-0, 2.62 ERA), nor was he tagged with a loss in June (6-0, 0.92 ERA), August (5-0, 3.12 ERA) or September (4-0, 2.55 ERA). From July 21 through his final outing of the season, Verlander was 12-0 in 13 starts, averaged 115 pitches per appearance and went at least six innings in every one of those starts (he threw at least six innings in EVERY start to become the fifth pitcher in the past 50 years to make at least 30 starts in a season and pitch at least six innings in every one of them).
While Verlander's 170 ERA+ may not give anyone the chills, his combination of innings and stinginess with baserunners was indeed something to elicit excitement. Only 10 pitchers in the live-ball era have worked at least 250 innings and posted a lower WHIP, and no other 250-inning pitcher has produced as low a WHIP in either league in the DH era. Using Verlander's ERA+, WHIP and innings as a baseline, the Tigers right-hander joined the following company: Johnson (1910, '12, '13), Cy Young ('08), Addie Joss ('08), Christy Mathewson ('09), Three Finger Brown ('09), Ed Walsh ('10), Pete Alexander ('15), Eddie Cicotte ('17), Luis Tiant ('68) and Bob Gibson ('68). Notice the years: 10 seasons in the dead-ball era, two others in the "Year of the Pitcher," and Verlander in 2011.
Verlander's game of the year -- the moment when everyone took notice -- was on May 7, when he no-hit the Blue Jays and became the 30th pitcher in baseball history with multiple no-hitters. And from that moment on, the baseball world was focused and pulled into a six-month celebration of this pitcher and his season. When it was all done, Verlander had become the 16th pitcher in AL history to win the Triple Crown, was the fourth AL starting pitcher since 1956 (the first year of the Cy Young Award) to win the MVP, and could claim the league lead in a total of 10 pitching categories.
In the ensuing years or even decades, we'll see if Verlander's 2011 season continues to hold such a highly esteemed place among the great AL pitching performances. Sometimes the feeling of the impact can fade as the sharp storylines recede into memory and the numbers are surpassed by other, more echoing achievements. But there is every reason to believe that as the Junior Circuit continues to roll through its second century of existence, Verlander's name will almost immediately be mentally connected to the year 2011, and that such associations will not only cause wonderment, but will also be a focal point for any conversation about the magnificence that can be felt when a pitcher extends himself to go beyond being the best in the league and reaches an even more elite status.
Roger Schlueter is senior researcher for MLB Productions. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.