Somewhere in the crawlspace underneath SB Nation headquarters, there’s a prewritten draft about Justin Verlander’s third no-hitter. I don’t remember if it’s played straight, or if it’s 1,000 words of slack-jawed wonder and a Nolan Ryan GIF for comparison. But it’s there. It was written because after the 376th close call of Verlander taking a no-hitter deep into a game, everyone around here was very tired of deleting their draft and starting over five days later.
This is because Justin Verlander was the best, see. Unambiguously the best pitcher alive. Before the league flirted with early ‘80s levels of scoring, before Clayton Kershaw was the Silver Surfer heralding offense’s doom, there was a pitcher who could throw 101 mph with his 115th pitch of any given game, and he could fill up the strike zone with whatever he threw. He was a Cy Young, an MVP, and an All-Star six times over. He threw at least six innings for 70 consecutive starts.
Then he was ordinary and everyone forgot about him.
It didn’t happen that quickly for Tigers fans, I’m sure, who got to the ordinary conclusion a lonely three-hour chunk of doubt at a time. His 2013 was good-not-great, his 2014 was a mess, and his 2015 was injury-marred, ending his eight-season streak of 200-plus innings. And in his first six starts of 2016, he allowed seven runs twice, which is as many times as he did from May 2009 to May 2013. His ERA was 5.46 at the end of April, and it was still above 4.00 when July started. We became used to Verlander as the falling star, the pitcher who fell into time’s spider web, just like every pitcher before him.
I bring both stages of Justin Verlander’s career up for a reason. We were used to him as a super-ace, the archetype of a tall, flamethrowing ace for generations to come. Then we were used to him as a fallen star, a cautionary tale. Now he’s a Cy Young candidate again ... but he’s not even close to the frontrunner.
A sortable table of the Cy Young candidates:
Use your preferred stat, and weight it accordingly. I included wins if you want to Make Statistics Great Again, while omitting Cole Hamels because he looked so very out of place in too many of the categories. Zach Britton is the orange to these apples of the voters’ eyes, so he’s kept away from the argument for now.
It’s a virtual tie. There’s no convincing me otherwise. Anyone making a big deal over a fraction of a win above replacement probably deserves to be force-fed an abacus, especially when the competing WAR disagrees. The park effects are important, but imperfect, just as FIP is important, but imperfect. All of these stats are important and imperfect. Except for wins, which is included for yuks, mostly.
But somehow, Verlander, a pitcher who has been all things to all people, for better and for worse, is a dark horse. The esteemed Jonathan Bernhardt dismisses him in his introductory paragraph here. He doesn’t get a mention from Michael Baumann, other than in a historical context. FanGraphs starts this article by suggesting Verlander is outside of the top four, then it ends it with a note about how his relatively poor luck has futzed with his FIP.
That’s not to say these folks are out of touch, and that I have tasted of the purest award-season nectar, and they should both fear and respect me, even if there’s certainly a kernel of truth to that middle part. Verlander doesn’t have much of a chance according to the conventional wisdom or the betting markets. This seems odd, considering how he was once the Platonic ideal of a once-in-a-generation ace.
I have theories.
1. We got too used to Verlander’s decline
It’s a weird reason, but it’s also plausible. It’s weird because Verlander had exactly one bad season. It was bookended by a very nice, 200-inning All-Star season and an injury-shortened season that was still excellent when it came to preventing runs, and now he’s outstanding again.
But whether it was the contract making everything seem worse, or whether we were just getting used to the decline and fall of other aces, or if it was the glimmer of hope being snuffed out by an injury just as he started recovering last year, it’s harder to reset Verlander’s legacy in our heads.
He has a chance to post the highest strikeout rate of his career, you know. He’s not that far removed from the golden god described above.
2. His start was too slow
His ERA at the end of June was above 4.00, which means that he must have had a heckuva last couple months. Which he has, throwing 116 innings with a 2.02 ERA, and it’s not like he’s made 15 starts against the Twins, either. Eleven of his last 17 starts came against teams that were contending into the final month, and he was absolutely dominating them. If he had even one more month like that, he would have been a unanimous selection.
But those first two months count, too, and they were also coming when voters were at their most impressionable. Those impressions built the kiln around which the takes are currently being heated. Even with recency bias ruling us all, it’s easier to be a fast starter than a fast finisher in the Cy Young race.
3. It’s not called the Most Valuable Pitcher award
This is my favorite silliness. Because if it were the Most Valuable Pitcher, you know the attention would shift to a player like Verlander, who has been the main reason the Tigers won’t go away. If the Indians didn’t have Corey Kluber, where would they be? Probably in first place. Where would the White Sox be without Chris Sale? Closer to the Twins than .500, but otherwise irrelevant, just like now.
The Tigers without Verlander, though. What a puddle of despair that would have been. They might have been sellers at the deadline, six or seven games back of the division and wild card. If they weren’t sellers, they would have regretted it, as Verlander’s pitching is one of the main reasons they’re contending right now, even with the rotation in shambles and the bullpen tigering things up.
As a tiebreaker, you could do worse than pretending it’s the Most Valuable Pitcher award. Like, say, pitcher wins. Which some voters will use. It’s all fun and games until you overlook one of the best comeback seasons of the past few years.
I’m not arguing for Verlander just yet, but he’s in the top tier of an distinguished, muddled field. He still has a start left, and it’s going to be a crucial one. There’s no shame in paying far too much attention to it and letting it cloud your brain. When an awards race is a zen koan, you have to find the answer that puts you at peace, whatever that is.
Regardless of whichever metric you prefer, Justin Verlander should be a much bigger part of the Cy Young conversation. That wasn’t the case a month ago. It certainly wasn’t the case two months ago. It would have been laughable three months ago. But we’re here, and the pitcher we were about to cast in an Expendables reboot with Roy Halladay, Johan Santana, and Tim Lincecum as the tiny contortionist with a black belt is as relevant as he ever was. We should probably talk about that more.