The day was October 11, 2012. Detroit was in Oakland for Game Five of the ALDS, a winner-take-all. Fans of both teams were extremely nervous. However, Tigers fans could take comfort in the pitching matchup: rookie Jarrod Parker against ace Justin Verlander. Verlander's 2012 was nearly as phenomenal as his 2011, leading many to proclaim him a shoo-in for back-to-back Cy Youngs. As if to prove their point, Verlander shut down the A's over seven innings in Game One.
We all know how Game Five ended up. Verlander pitched arguably the best start of his career, striking out 11 and allowing just four hits in a shutout. The best pitcher in all of baseball was at the top of the world. As one BYB commenter put it that night:
If I ever get to the point of taking a pitcher like Justin Verlander for granted,
I hope someone punches me in the face. He’s a magnificent talent and those are very rare.
Fast forward one year, and it seems Verlander has been a victim of just that. Despite posting a 3.46 ERA across 218 1/3 innings, good for his fifth straight 5 fWAR season, Justin has been the source of angst for many Detroit fans. Some called for him to be put in the bullpen for the playoffs, which predictably led to Rogo's head exploding. On top of that, Max Scherzer has been incredible this year, going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA as well as picking up the win in Game One.
That's what makes this idea seem unconventional:
Verlander should start Game Five, if necessary.
First of all, this is possible logistically. Game Five is set for Thursday in Oakland, meaning Verlander would be on normal rest. Meanwhile, it's entirely possible to shift Scherzer to the bullpen, a position he assumed to get important outs in Game Five of the 2011 ALDS. The bullpen, sans Bruce Rondon, needs all the help it can get.
Verlander deserves the ball on Thursday, if it comes to it, because he is the ace of the staff. While Scherzer is likely to win the Cy Young, there's a reason Verlander got to boast that he was the highest-paid pitcher in the history of the game when he signed his extension. Over the past four years, Verlander leads Scherzer in fWAR, 25.4 to 17.4. In-season, Scherzer's ERA lead is just one earned run per 16 innings, so they are rather similar.
There are other factors, as well. In two regular season starts each against the Athletics, Scherzer had a 4.90 ERA, while Verlander's was 3.27. The edge can mainly be described by Scherzer's inability to command off-speed stuff in a start in late August. On top of that, Verlander has absolutely destroyed the A's in his last three postseason starts: 23 innings pitched, 1 run. That run was 23 innings ago.
Think 2012 doesn't have much of an influence on what should happen Thursday? Then let's look at the September/October regular season starts for each of them. While momentum means very little for a team or a hitter, pitchers are creatures of mechanical habit; getting into a rhythm is a tangible, real thing. Boy, has Verlander gotten into some sort of rhythm lately. Scherzer posted an excellent 2.90 ERA, 2.73 FIP, and 3.00 K/BB ratio, but he was still clearly outpitched by JV: 2.27 ERA, 2.04 FIP, and 4.80 K/BB ratio. Vintage Justin has slipped back into the rotation without anyone noticing Jason's disappearance. It's unbelievable.
In all honesty, either option on Thursday would give Detroit an excellent shot against Colon. Scherzer is having an excellent season which will culminate in a Cy Young. However, these are the playoffs, and the time has come for Leyland to make the decisions to try to win this series. Justin Verlander, Tigers Ace, gives Detroit the best shot to win this ALDS if it comes down to it.