You don’t spell Verlander with a “W” and that’s just fine

Some fans expect Justin Verlander to win every start and throw a no-hitter almost every time he takes the mound.

Some fans expect Justin Verlander to win every start and throw a no-hitter almost every time he takes the mound.

This is not an article about sabermeterics. This sentence is the only time I will mention the term WAR, and I am not going to attempt to convince you to embrace the statistical side of baseball and abandon the nuance and beauty of the game.

Really, I’m not.

But I am going to address a trend that I’ve been noticing, a trend that troubles me if only because it gnaws at that part of my brain that doesn’t understand how silly people can be.

I’ll start with a story. On Saturday I watched as Justin Verlander toed the rubber to face the Cleveland Indians. I was watching on a TV in a restaurant, surrounded by people I’d never met before. As most of you know, JV struggled – he couldn’t command his fastball, he walked runners into scoring position, and he floated heaters up in the strike zone, which the Indians’ batters gladly smacked to the gaps to score runs. It was an atypical performance by Verlander. It was a strange sight for Tigers’ fans, who rarely see their ace struggle like that.

But as I watched the game I was less amazed by JV’s struggles than I was with the soundtrack that filled the air. My ears kept gathering comments from the people near me:

What is his problem? He sucks.

Every game he has a crappy inning.

He always struggles in the first inning.

He signed that big contract and he hasn’t pitched well since.

I didn’t shake my head frantically from side to side, but I wanted to. I wanted to stand on my table and point out how ridiculous these people were. But, my better nature (aided perhaps by my medication) prevailed. I sat in silence and watched.

The Tigers ended up losing the game, but JV adjusted and went five innings while allowing three earned runs. Not one of his best outings, but a performance that many pitchers in baseball would accept. The fact is, we expect a lot from Verlander. And that’s fine. But there’s justified criticism and then there’s balderdash.

After the game on Saturday I received a tweet that read: “A 4-3 record with the money he’s making, I expect more than that.”

That was the tipping point. I couldn’t let that go. Criticize players for lack of effort, criticize them for poor performance, criticize them for lack of preparation, but there’s no excuse for criticizing a player for something he has no control over.

“Wins” are how we measure the success of our teams, and correctly so. But wins are not how we should measure the success or effectiveness of a pitcher.

For years, in fact for much of baseball history, wins were the measuring stick for pitchers. A 20-game winner was a good pitcher, maybe a great pitcher. A few pitchers have won 30 games in a season (Denny McLain in 1968 for the Tigers is the last to do so). And a 300-game winner is a mortal lock Hall of Famer. But wins are a poor way to gauge the contribution of a pitcher, they always have been, and no more so than they are right now. At no time in baseball history has the “W” meant less in regards to a pitcher.

100 years ago, when Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander and Smoky Joe Wood were the Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, and Felix Hernandez of baseball, evaluating pitchers based on wins made a lot more sense. Starting pitchers in those days almost always pitched the entire game. Naturally, they usually got a decision (either a win or a loss). But, even so, wins were very much dependent on the teams they pitched for. The better team a pitcher was on, the better his won/loss record was. Johnson, for example, once went 13-25 for the Washington Senators even though he was one of the best pitchers in baseball. In 1918, when he was the same age as Verlander is now, Johnson lost 13 games even though he led the American League with a glimmering 1.27 ERA. That means he was giving up less than a run-and-a-half per game, yet Johnson still came out with an “L” 13 times. In all, “Big Train” lost 279 games even though he allowed less than 2.2 runs per nine innings for his entire career.

But in today’s game, starting pitchers are expected to get 5-6 innings in before the manager hands the game over to a string of relievers. Like it or not, that’s the reality of the modern game. It’s a trend that has been developing since the 1960s. Gradually, the complete game has become more rare, until now it’s cause for headlines when a starting pitcher gets into the 8th inning! Verlander once went 63 straight starts of 6 innings or more. That’s the third longest in baseball history. File that away for the next time you hear someone question his ability.

This year, JV has a 1.93 ERA (even after his struggle last Saturday), a figure that rates fourth in the league. In his eight starts, Verlander’s earned runs have been: 0, 3, 1, 2, 1, 1, 0, and 3. He has went at least seven innings in five of his starts. His record sits at 4-3, not because he’s pitched poorly, but because of circumstances beyond his control. JV’s record is 4-3 because his teammates haven’t scored that many runs for him and they’ve made a few misplays in the field. Last time I checked, Justin Verlander doesn’t have anything to do with how well his teammates happen to play when he’s on the mound. Fact is, he actually reduces the number of chances they have to commit an error because he strikes out a lot of batters, and he also keeps the other team off the scoreboard, which means his offense doesn’t have to score as often as they would when say, Rick Porcello is on the bump.

Want another example of why W/L records are a terrible way to measure a pitcher? The Baltimore Orioles have a fella named Jason Hammel, who’s a nice little pitcher, but light years from Verlander in terms of talent. So far in 2013, Hammel’s record is 5-1. He must be having a much better year than Verlander, right? Not even close. Hammel’s ERA is just under five and he’s allowed more hits than innings pitched. Verlander is so stingy at giving up hits that ESPN puts extra staff on duty every time he starts because there’s a chance he’s going to throw (another) no-hitter.

The fat contract that Verlander signed in spring training has not made him lazy. He hasn’t lost anything on his fastball or any of his other pitches. He doesn’t suck. He’s the best pitcher on the planet. That’s pretty obvious. I don’t think I have to go through the last 2+ years to show why Verlander is the best in the business. He is.

When I responded to the tweet I mention earlier in this article by pointing out that Verlander has allowed less than 2 runs per game, the response was, “You must be one of those sabermetric snobs.”

I most certainly am not. Anyone who takes a glance at the stuff I write here would see that stats and sabermetrics are not something I spend a lot of time on. But, I do have a brain, and I can see things with my own two eyes.

In the modern game, we should be reasonable enough to see that a pitcher’s win/loss record is very team dependent and a poor way to rate pitchers. Ignoring that is like being one of the folks who denied that the Earth was round for centuries. You don’t have to be a scientist to see the curvature of the horizon.

2 replies on “You don’t spell Verlander with a “W” and that’s just fine

  • Dmoney

    It is August 22, 2013. Do you still think Justin verlander is the greatest pitcher on the planet? I partially agree with your argument that the win/loss stat is not the most reliable stat there is. However, it’s still a good indicator. Do you think hitters hit better when they like and have faith in their pitcher?

  • Dan Holmes


    I don’t think W/L record is a reliable stat AT ALL to evaluate pitcher’s in modern baseball. Maybe 40 years ago, when pitchers routinely tossed 25 complete games a year, but not now. See Felix Hernandez’s 2010 season as an example of a mediocre W/L mark, yet he was the best starting pitcher in the league. he might be again this year.

    No, I do not think it matters ONE BIT who is pitching – batters don’t hit better if a certain pitcher is on the mound. I have never seen anyone put forth any evidence that that’s the case.

    Since I wrote this article, JV has had several mediocre outings. It’s obvious that he is having an off-year for him. Is he the best pitcher on the planet right now? Nope. Kershaw probably is. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he came out in 2014 and had a dominant season. Baseball history is filled with pitchers who had up and down records from season to season. JV, even in his off-year, is still in the top 10 in many categories. It’s not like he sucks.

    Thanks for reading!


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