Going into the past two seasons, much was made of the pitchers atop each of the four contenders’ rotations: C.C. Sabathia, Johan Santana, Mark Buehrle and Justin Verlander. The first two had the gall to stay great but also the grace to be traded away, so we can ignore them for now. Buehrle, surprisingly, didn’t follow suit in the exodus out of the Central, but Verlander seems to have disappeared altogether. Sort of.
On the surface, it looks like just a down year for the Tigers’ ace: his ERA is up near a full point, his walks are exortbitantly higher (after tonight, he’s handed out more free passes that he did in his 2006 season but in 35 fewer innings), and his won-loss, like that of his team, kind of sucks.
The thing is, you can actually attribute everything that’s gone wrong for Justin Verlander to one simple, stupid fact and yet one we should celebrate every time a guy hitting .220 with a good eye comes up to bat. You know who I mean.
His strikeouts per nine innings and hits allowed are both holding fairly steady to his career norms. He’s not giving up any more home runs than he ever has, but take a look at that other crucial number: after tonight, Verlander has walked as many batters already this season as he did all of last season (60 walks in 186 innings for 2007; 61 in 154 for 2008). And this, somehow, vaults his ERA up a full point while his WHIP has held at a perfectly respectable 1.3.
Perhaps this is just living proof of the U.S.S. Mariner staff’s theory of pitcher evaluation that states how most pitching statistics are entirely useless. A review of his 2006 and 2007 gamelogs shows a lot of instances of Verlander coughing up seven, then throwing a shutout. In 2006, for example, he’d surrender two runs every time he won yet give up an average of nine with every loss. Even more specifically, he gave up five or more runs six times – once every five starts that season.
With the shutouts and no-hitters temporarily gone maybe we, as fans of a team he doesn’t play for, can take comfort in the idea that save for the freak accident of a gem, all be will be okay against this man. Maybe there is no reason to fear Justin Verlander and maybe, just maybe, there never was in the first place.