We're continuing our previewing of the Detroit Tigers player by player. Expect much of the bullpen and the bench players to be doubled up a bit during the final week before the season, but we'll goone a day until then, by uniform numbers. I reserve the right to go out of order either on purpose or by accident.
Justin Verlander #35
So we move on in our series, from starting position players to starting pitchers. And we find another controversial figure. This seems weird that a player with as much ability could be controversial, yet Justin Verlander is.
It's really a matter of degree. To what degree do you credit luck for his 24 win, 2.40 ERA season in 2011? How much can be credited to ability? Or, if you want to narrow it down to one stat, how much of a believer in BABIP are you?
That's really what this entire debate hinges on, because Verlander has an abnormally low .236 BABIP. History will tell you to expect Verlander's BABIP to go up. Which means more baserunners. Which means more opportunities for other teams to score. Which means more runs allowed. Verlander's BABIP will almost certainly move toward his career average. So it's going up. And the ERA will almost certainly rise with it.
You can probably find an instance or two that doesn't happen. Keith, in our comments section, found a two-year period where that wasn't true for Bob Gibson. Then there's Nolan Ryan, whose career BABAIP was .265. (I would counter, then, that Ryan followed up a .236 year with a .280 year, and a .230 year with a .301 year. In both cases, the ERA rose by at least half a run.) But I bet Keith also found many cases that weren't like Ryan's or Gibson's. So if you want to play the odds, you accept that Verlander could pitch with equal or better ability in 2012 and not get the same results. No one is claiming that the Tigers' ace isn't an elite pitcher, just that a season like he had takes a lot of skill and a little luck. You can't count on the luck to continue.
I'm playing the odds. Some prognosticators want to predict 17 or 18 wins and an ERA of 3.50. I'm not going there. Verlander's ERA will probably be closer to 3.00 than 2.00 at the end of the season. His wins total will probably be closer to 20 than 15 (or 25).
I repeat: He's a great pitcher, among the best of his generation. But the long run always wins, and it's safer to side with the long run than hope for a continued luck streak.