As part of SB Nation United, Bless You Boys will be allowing a few guests to write about the team from time to time. SB Nation's featured site contributors will be writing about issues both local and national. Think of them as guests in the community. We’re beginning this week with Cee Angi, better known for her work at The Platoon Advantage.
This season, I'm tired of not hearing about Justin Verlander.
Trust me, as a Chicagoan who spends a little bit of free time on the South Side*, I'm not just trying to pander since I'm new here. There's absolutely no sucking up when I say, quite seriously, I wasn't finished talking about Justin Verlander last season, and I can't believe we're not talking about him more now.
*please be kind and give me points for honesty
Last season, baseball was Justin Verlander's world, we were just living in it. You couldn't escape the Verlander narrative, but no one really wanted to, either - he was on Twitter, in the newspaper and on the Internet. Harold Reynolds was singing his praises on MLB Network, and he'd even get time on SportsCenter*.
*Usually in the last 30 seconds of an episode, because the rest was about Tim Tebow
I couldn't call my mother - who lives in suburban Detroit - last season without her wanting to discuss Verlander.
"He sure is good, isn't he? He got another win!" she'd say to me on our weekly phone calls. I even took her to see her adopted son with the 98-mph fastball for her birthday. As a proud member of the Detroit community, she wanted to show support for the pitcher whose incredible season was one of the best in recent memory. No hitter? Yep. On May 7, 2011. Cy Young? Check. Securing the first American League MVP award for a pitcher since Dennis Eckersley won in 1992? He did that too.
And everyone was okay with the constant Verlander chatter, unlike the ever mockable Brian Wilson narrative, because no one in good conscious could dislike Verlander*: He deserved respect and adoration, and he got it.
*The fact that he was never in a Taco Bell commercial helps the likeability tremendously
But this season, the Verlander conversation is dormant. Sure, if you dig through this site or others, he's there. A quick Google search returns plenty of things about Justin Verlander*, but the narrative of his dominance isn't there. This season when I call my mom she says, "Cee, how is Justin Verlander doing?" because she's concerned something terrible has happened to her beloved son.
*According to one website, Jockbio.com, in Little League, children would start crying in the on-deck circle when they saw how fast Justin threw
I've assured her all season he's been doing fine ... and then I curse BABIP.
What does batting average on balls in play have to do with it? It's only part of the equation, but when you consider conventional wisdom on wins, BABIP, and the Tigers' performance surrounding Verlander, the narrative has been sucked out, though the pitcher remains the same.
It's time to set the record straight on a few things and restore Justin Verlander's reputation ... especially before Cy Young voting.
This season, he's not a winner. Last season, Verlander went 24-5, but this season he's 16-8 (with just one start remaining before the regular season ends). Even knowing what we do about wins as a statistic -- that it's flawed because it doesn't take into account factors like run support and defense -- having eight fewer wins will still garner some (negative) attention. Though the media has shown growth into the world of progressive thinking (Felix Hernandez winning the Cy Young in 2010 with a 13-12 record for example), to some, wins are the litmus test of judging a season's success, which destroys the Verlander narrative this season.
*If I called my mom and told her Justin Verlander has won eight fewer wins this year, she would march down to Comerica Park and send him to bed without dinner. She's great, but she's not exactly Bill James.
Leading the League. In 2011, Verlander led the league in many categories, including Wins, Win-Loss Percentage, games started, ERA, ERA+, innings pitched, strikeouts, WHIP, hits-per-nine. This season, he's leading in several of the same categories, including games started, innings pitched, strikeouts, batters faced, and ERA+. *
*It's not to say that all of these categories are meaningful, it's just to say if you look at his Baseball-Reference page, you're going to see a lot of bolded numbers telling you that he was extremely good last year.
Verlander's ERA this season is 2.72, which is a little bit higher than last season's 2.40 ERA, but still impressive when you consider that he's thrown over 231 innings and held the competition to less than 3 runs on average. A look into Verlander's more meaningful stats show that he's largely the same pitcher he's always been.
There are some changes in performance, but nothing glaringly significant, and certainly nothing to suggest he's having a bad season. Verlander has given up fewer home runs this season, and he's walking more batters, but his numbers in most other categories are almost identical. He's still the same pitcher who averages 9+ strikeouts per nine innings and can throw 120 pitches in an outing gaining velocity as he goes. In some ways, he's actually improved this season by inducing more ground-balls, forcing more double plays, and giving up fewer home runs -- but no one wants to talk about him this season ... so there's nothing left to blame but BABIP.
BABIP. Bastardized in speech as "Bab-ip," it measures a pitcher's success preventing hits on batted balls into play. It's widely accepted that .300 is average for BABIP (though it fluctuates per season, last year's was .295), and that a low or high BABIP in a season is grounded in some measurable data, but mostly luck*. Last season, in his Cy Young and MVP season, Justin Verlander's BABIP was .236, which is incredibly low, sending up a lot of red flags about luck.
*I challenge one of you to call my mother and try to explain to her BABIP. If you're in the Detroit metro, you can even buy her a cup of coffee and discuss it with her.
The assumption of BABIP is that over a pitcher's career their BABIP will regress to the mean, and as expected this season, Verlander's BABIP is climbing a bit closer to .300 -- he's currently at .277. But there's a snag in assuming that the change in BABIP for Verlander has just been a shift in luck: There's two factors to consider here: the change in his line-drive rate and the Tigers' defense.
Another widely accepted convention of BABIP is that it rises as line-drives increase, which makes logical sense as well -- those duck snorts are the hardest to field. This season, Verlander's line-drive percentage is 20 percent, three percent higher than last season, which accounts for some of the increase in BABIP.
Another concept of BABIP (and the hardest to quantify) is what effect the Tigers' defense has on BABIP. There has been some talk this season about the Tigers' defense being horrendous, but it's not just hyperbole: The Tigers are the worst in the American League.
According to the Joe Sheehan Newsletter:
"...the Tigers are turning 2.67% fewer balls in play into outs than an average team would. That sounds like a small number; it's not. It's the 12th-worst AL defense by PADE since the 1994 strike season, and it represents approximately 90 balls that went for singles, doubles and triples against the Tigers that an average team would turn into outs."
Quantifying the defensive effect on BABIP, especially with the small-sample size of one season, especially for just one pitcher, is extremely difficult to do. No one really has a metric to determine to what extreme bad defense is adjusting BABIP, but sabermetricans would agree that it would have some measurable effect on BABIP.
While he's not in the conversation for MVP this year (aren't you glad this wasn't another Trout versus Cabrera post?), he's certainly in the conversation for Cy Young again this season. He's just making his bid with less fanfare. As a consumer of baseball, and an admirer of Justin Verlander, it's a shame the peripherals are clouding another spectacular season by the Tigers' ace. I guess we can keep his consistency our little secret and continue to celebrate him anyway.