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Justin Verlander: A Shot At 25?

Justin Verlander won his 20th game Saturday against the Minnesota Twins. Eric Seidman already covered his MVP candidacy this morning, and I have to agree that we should probably cool down on it a little bit. I’m sure my opinion surprises absolutely nobody — we here at FanGraphs can’t stand pitcher wins, and I’m no different.

However, as Eric mentioned, Verlander might have a shot at 25 victories this season. And as heartless and cold and robotic as I may seem on the outside, even I can recognize the weight of that accomplishment. It hasn’t been done since Bob Welch was led by the Oakland Athletics to a 27-win season in 1990 — and I choose these words for a reason. Welch wasn’t actually that great that year, posting a sub-2.0 K/BB ratio, a FIP above 4.00, and a 2.95 ERA which was only five points lower than the ERA which brought him a 17-win season the year before. But with a little help from his friends, Welch put together the winningest season we’ve seen in two decades. Verlander has 20 wins and only six starts (maybe only five) left, so he won’t catch Welch this year. But can he, realistically, get to 25 and put a name to the accomplishment that actually deserves it?

Simply going by the simple logic that Justin Verlander (or a comparably talented pitcher on a comparably good team) has a pretty good chance at winning every single time he goes out there, and he has more (or as many) starts remaining as wins needed, the answer is yes, he has a chance, even if it isn’t great. The numbers support this from a couple of different angles.

For our first estimate, let’s use something relatively simple. So far, Verlander has 20-5 win-loss record in 29 starts. We could use his .800 winning percentage to figure his chances, but we have to account for no-decisions, too. Verlander still has a “start win percentage” of .690, as he’s won 20 of his 29 starts this year. Were we to consider that his true talent rate for five starts, simple probability (five successes with a .690 success rate in five chances) gives us a 15.6% chance of him winning all five and ending with 25 wins. If he were to get six starts down the stretch, we get a whopping 29.1% chance of him winning five of the six and can tack on another 10.8% chance of him winning all six, for a grand total of 39.9%. Pretty great odds for such a rare feat.

However, projecting Verlander to continue at the same rate he’s been at this season is dangerous, as it assumes we know all we need to about not only Verlander’s pitching, but his team’s chance of winning and then his own chance at earning the decision from just 29 starts. The assumption at hand is simply too much.

I’ll present an alternative method here as well. Although it’s not perfect, it should show that Verlander, even despite the fact that he can’t count on the same combination of talent, performance, and teammate help that has gotten him this far, still has a shot at 25 wins nobody could have expected coming into the season. The method is based on the Marcel projections featured here — so simple a monkey could do it, as long as he had a working understanding of the SQL programming language.

For a Marcel-type projection, we weight the past three years on a 5-4-3 basis (most recent gets 5, then 4, then 3), and add in two seasons (68 starts) of an average pitcher. Remember, we’re concerned with start winning percentage here, not decision winning percentage. Of the 1,854 games started in the American League this year, 678 of them have been wins. That’s a start winning percentage of only .366 for the American League. That number goes with a .690 start win percentage this year in 29 starts, .545 in 2010 in 33 starts, and .543 in 2011 in 35 starts.

Performing the calculation, we get a .564 start win percentage — better than his recent years, but much closer to his career mark of .530 than his blazing mark of .690 this season. And that’s what we should expect. Verlander’s odds drop pretty dramatically with this calculation, but given the rarity of the 25-win season, his odds are still pretty high. If he gets just five starts, his odds drop to a mere 5.7%, but in the scenario with six starts, Verlander still has a 14.9% chance of 25 wins and a 3.2% chance at 26 wins for an 18.1% overall chance. I think if you told Tigers fans (or Justin Verlander, or Jim Leyland) that he would have a better than 1-in-6 chance at a 25-win season come August 29th, they would be pretty ecstatic.

These two methods, at the very least, give a pretty good range of probabilities for Verlander to reach the 25-win-mark. When we’re coming up with numbers with a floor of 15% and a ceiling (albeit an optimistic one) of 40% for a feat that hasn’t come around in two full decades, we know we have something worth watching for the rest of the season. And that’s always better than sitting around and debating who should win a hugely subjective and contentious award like the MVP.