The Idea and Reality of Justin Verlander

“In the end, the Tigers are just too strong in too many areas, and they have the X factor at the top of their rotation. Verlander is this year’s Orel Hershiser of ’88 vintage, capable of winning two games each series, no questions asked.” – Larry Stone, Seattle Times.

“He was the most pivotal player in the league, dominating on the days he pitched and having a significant impact on the Detroit bullpen the day before he pitched and the two days afterward.” – Buster Olney, ESPN

You don’t have to do much googling to find a column praising the dominance of Justin Verlander. In fact, a search for “Justin Verlander” + dominant will return 561,000 results. There’s no arguing that Verlander is one of the game’s elite pitchers – no matter what perspective you take, he’s great.

But, I’m starting to feel like the idea of Justin Verlander is becoming larger than the reality of Justin Verlander. He’s a great pitcher who had a great year, but it’s not like he did anything this season that was historically unprecedented. In fact, there’s a pitcher that performs at something close to this level nearly every season.

For the season, Verlander threw 251 innings and posted an ERA- of 58, meaning that he allowed runs at a clip 42 percent better than the league average. For now, let’s just ignore the debate about the usefulness of ERA and assume that every aspect of run prevention should be credited to the pitcher. ERA- gives us a baseline, and not surprisingly, 42 percent above average is really, really good. But it’s not all that rare, and we generally haven’t seen this kind of effusive praise for other pitchers who have posted similar seasons.

If we set a 220 inning minimum (which eliminates a few amazing seasons by guys like Pedro Martinez, but part of Verlander’s mystique is the workload) and go back 20 years, Verlander’s 58 ERA- ranks as the 18th best since 1992 – tying him with the 1993 version of Kevin Appier. Ahead of him are a bunch of amazing seasons from Hall-of-Famers like Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson, but there’s also the 2005 Andy Pettitte in there, and I don’t remember anyone writing about him in this fashion. In fact, each of the last two AL Cy Young winners (Zack Greinke in 2009, Felix Hernandez in 2010) posted a lower ERA relative to league average than Verlander did this year.

Verlander has had an excellent season, and he’s clearly a huge weapon for the Tigers, but unless you’re focusing on his win-loss record, there’s really no evidence that he’s been that much more “dominant” than any other high quality ace we’ve seen in the last 20 years. His velocity and no-hitters give off the appearance of unhittableness, but he’s pitching at a a normal, previosuly established level of excellence. And, in looking back at the guys who have been at least as good as Verlander was this year (with some being a lot better), we find one cold reality – having a guy like this at the front of your rotation isn’t a magic key to a World Championship.

Here’s the final tally for how the dominant ace’s teams finished during their seasons of greatness:

1997 Blue Jays (Roger Clemens): Not a playoff team
1997 Expos (Pedro Martinez): Not a playoff team
1996 Marlins (Kevin Brown): Not a playoff team
2009 Royals (Zack Greinke): Not a playoff team
1997 Braves (Greg Maddux): Lost in NLCS
1998 Braves (Greg Maddux): Lost in NLCS
1999 Diamondbacks (Randy Johnson): Lost in NLDS
2002 Diamondbacks (Randy Johnson): Lost in NLDS
2001 Diamondbacks (Randy Johnson): Won World Series
2000 Diamondbacks (Randy Johnson): Not a playoff team
2004 Twins (Johan Santana): Lost in ALDS
1998 Blue Jays (Roger Clemens): Not a playoff team
2005 Astros (Andy Pettitte): Lost in World Series
1993 Braves (Greg Maddux): Lost in NLCS
2004 Diamondbacks (Randy Johnson): Not a playoff team
2010 Mariners (Felix Hernandez): Not a playoff team
1992 Red Sox (Roger Clemens): Not a playoff team

Most of these guys weren’t able to “carry their teams” into October, because in reality, the effect of one great pitcher is fairly overrated in the regular season. That legitimate ace has more value in the playoffs, but even then, the teams that made it to the promised land usually still lost despite their dominant ace. The pitchers represented above actually lost more playoff series (five) than they won (four), and of course, only the 2001 Diamondbacks were able to take home the big trophy at the end of the playoffs.

Verlander is a great pitcher, but the Yankees have a pretty great offense. Despite what you’re told, history shows that the great pitcher doesn’t usually win out in the end. Let’s celebrate Justin Verlander’s season for what it was, but don’t buy into the myth that he’s some kind of historically unhittable ace that has and will continue to single-handedly carry Detroit on his back. If the Tigers want to beat the Yankees, they better give him an awful lot of help.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.