In terms of WAR, Justin Verlander was the most valuable pitcher in Major League Baseball in July. The Detroit Tigers needed dominance from their ace to paper over a banged up rotation, and he rose to the occasion in style. Of importance to Verlander's career perspective, is that his numbers in July were enough to set him up for a huge second half. If he can keep it going the way he did in 2015, a second AL Cy Young award is well within reach.
Verlander went 4-0 in July over six starts. He posted a 1.69 ERA across 42 2/3 innings, with a very supportive FIP of 2.25. In the process he accumulated 1.6 fWAR, easily out-pacing Adam Wainwright’s second place total of 1.3. However, both Max Scherzer and J.A. Happ had lower ERA and FIP numbers on the month. While he was clearly outstanding, Verlander’s lead rests in part on the fact that he made six starts in July, while most of the other top pitchers made five.
Assessing the competition
The Cy Young award is a contest without rules or official scoring. When the season ends, two baseball writers from each American League city will cast ballots ranking their choices for five most valuable pitchers in the American League. Points are scaled to each ranking, and determine who takes home the award. And as in many elections, the narrative is as important as the numbers.
It is shaping up to be an odd year in the American League. If the home run power on display in the first half holds true, the sub-3.00 ERAs posted in recent years are going to be few and far between in 2016. In addition, popular preseason favorites like Chris Archer and Dallas Keuchel are out of running already.
You can make a Cy Young argument a lot of ways. Judging by ERA, Verlander will need a spectacular final two months to really make his case. By wins, he's actually in fairly good shape. However, it does bear remembering that both Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale had a lower ERA than Corey Kluber in 2014, yet Kluber took home the Cy Young as the leader in both fWAR and in wins. The resistance to advanced metrics isn’t quite the obstacle it was a few years ago. Still, pitcher wins, and the overall success of the team, will still play a role in many voters' decision-making.
Chris Sale and Jose Quintana may have a rough time as a result. Sale is still a popular choice among odds makers, but his reputation has taken a hit recently and without his usual high strikeout rates this year, his numbers don’t have the pop they did in previous seasons. With the White Sox fading as a team, the two aces may continue to dominate in relative obscurity as far as the minds of voters are concerned. Even so, Sale is capable of going on a crazy enough run to win the award even on a moribund White Sox team.
Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees is in similar shape. So is Matt Shoemaker of the Los Angeles Angels. Neither is quite lighting the world on fire, and the only interest around their teams revolves around their rebuilding efforts. Meanwhile, Aaron Sanchez, the Blue Jays’ breakout star, has been superb and owns 11 wins, but is likely going to be limited by workload issues the rest of the way.
That would seem to leave Sale, Kluber, Danny Salazar and David Price as Verlander’s chief competition. With the Indians pacing the American League, Salazar seems like he could get a boost both from his team’s success and from his first-time status. If he could sustain his excellent numbers down the stretch, the hard-throwing righthander would seem like an ace whose time has come. However, Salazar's numbers, as well as his velocity, have fallen off over the past month, and it was reported on Monday that he has been dealing with an elbow issue for a few weeks. Salazar will have an MRI on Tuesday to check for any damage.
Meanwhile, Justin Verlander is coming on like a hurricane.
The deciding factor in the voting is not going to be fWAR. Still, it should be noted that Verlander sits fourth in that department currently. His reputation as the game’s most durable workhorse is maintained, in the 11th year of his career, by an American League leading 147 1/3 innings pitched. He is tied with Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays with 155 strikeouts.
The best sign for Justin Verlander is that he has made real improvements throughout the season. The outstanding July numbers he posted feel very much a natural result of the adjustments made. He has honed his fastball and built velocity all season long. A change in his slider in May to a more cutter-like version has produced outstanding results, and Verlander continues to wield his curveball-changeup combination to superb effect.
For Verlander, it’s likely that his chances of winning a second Cy Young Award and the Tigers’ chances of a postseason berth are interconnected. For the team to run down the Cleveland Indians, or simply pull a wild card spot, they will likely need Verlander to pitch like he did in the second half of 2015 when he posted a 2.80 ERA. In three starts this year since the All-Star break, he’s well ahead of that pace. The schedule sets up well for Verlander in August and September. The Tigers will be home for 33 of their remaining 57 games. He has posted slightly better numbers at Comerica Park this season than on the road.
And of course, the numbers are the key. Verlander seems likely to be a popular choice for voters, but only if the Tigers are successful, and if Verlander gets enough wins to approach 20. Presumably he will need to lower his ERA substantially along the way as well. The progress he has made this season has him on the right path. If he can sustain the run of dominance he's on, there is a solid chance that Verlander finds himself taking home the hardware. Quite likely the team's post season chances rest in no small part, on the same thing.