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Was Verlander Better than Halladay?

Justin Verlander won the Cy Young and the MVP award after a tremendous 2011 season. Roy Halladay — who posted similar numbers — went home with nothing. Whether or not you agreed with Verlander’s selection as the MVP, he was considered a strong candidate for the award. Halladay couldn’t even beat out Clayton Kershaw for the NL Cy Young, making his chances to win the NL MVP miniscule at best. A glance at the award results might lead one to conclude that Verlander was a vastly superior pitcher last season. The truth is, Halladay was just as good — if not better.

Not taking anything away from Verlander — who posted a great season — but Halladay matched him in nearly every statistical category. Halladay actually finished with a superior walk rate (1.35 to 2.04) and home run rate (.39 to .86) than Verlander. Even though Verlander posted a higher strikeout rate, his lead in the category was just 8.96 to 8.47. While Halladay narrowly finished ahead of Verlander in ERA, he performed much better in the advanced pitching metrics.

Halladay is actually able to widen the gap when looking at the advanced stats. He led all of baseball with a 2.20 FIP last season — compared to Verlander’s 2.99. He also bested Verlander in xFIP (2.71 to 3.12) and SIERA (2.79 to 2.99). Even though Halladay doesn’t own a commanding lead in any single category, he still finished the season worth 1.2 wins more than Verlander.

Before we go any further, let’s discuss the elephant in the room. Halladay may have had a better season, but he pitched in an inferior league. If Verlander was able to face a pitcher 1-2 times per game, his rate stats would likely improve quite a bit. Using this logic, Halladay’s season might not look as special when compared to Verlander.

If we can determine how the average starting pitcher performed in each league, we can get a better idea of just how dominant each starter was in their respective leagues. Thankfully, this is something we can sort using the FanGraphs leader boards. Using these leader boards, we can see that the average performance of a starting pitcher in the AL was 4.08/4.05/4.03 and 3.82/3.85/3.87 in the NL (ERA/FIP/xFIP). So, pitching in the NL was slightly easier than pitching in the AL. Does that mean we should discount Halladay’s performance?

Not necessarily.

If we look at each player’s performance in the “minus” stats (ERA-, FIP-, xFIP-), we can see how their stats matched up against their league-mates. Remember, the “minus” stats are already adjusted for league and park. An average score is 100, and lower numbers are better in this case.

While both pitchers posted and ERA- much better than their league-mates, Halladay actually performed slightly better against his contemporaries than Verlander. Halladay, expectedly, excelled against his league-mates in FIP- — posting a sensational 56. Verlander also performed well in this category with a 73. While in xFIP-, there was only a seven point difference between the two pitchers with Halladay posting a 70 in the NL and Verlander posting a 77 in the AL.

Even though the NL was the slightly inferior league, Halladay’s performance against his league-mates was slightly better when compared to Verlander’s performance against AL pitchers. Verlander may be walking away with all the off-season accolades, but it’s really tough to argue he was better than Halladay.