Justin Verlander added the 2011 AL Most Valuable Player Award to his rapidly expanding trophy case on Monday, becoming the first pitcher to win both MVP and Cy Young since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 and the first starter since Roger Clemens in 1986. Verlander posted a 250/57 K/BB ratio in 251 innings, taking the pitcher triple crown by also getting 24 wins and compiling a 2.40 ERA.
Verlander's MVP selection is sure to stir controversy. Going by Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement (which judges pitchers based on actual runs allowed), Verlander's 8.6 WAR puts him neck-and-neck with Jose Bautista (8.5) and ahead of other bandied-about candidates like Jacoby Ellsbury (7.2), Miguel Cabrera (7.1) and Curtis Granderson (5.2). But Fangraphs' WAR, which evaluates a pitcher by his fielding-independent stats, has Verlander with 7 WAR (he got a big boost from a .236 batting average on balls in play, over 50 points below his career average). That's below the likes of Ellsbury (9.4), Bautista (8.3), Cabrera (7.3) and even with Granderson. By results, Verlander was arguably the best. By process, perhaps not (though "luck" arguments can be made for hitters, too).
In any event, Verlander was truly awesome in 2011. Here are 13 tidbits on his MVP-Cy Young season -- one for each first-place MVP vote that he received.
- Verlander led all starters with an average fastball velocity of 95.1 mph. But he had a wide range in velocity, maxing out at 101 mph and going as low as 91-92 mph. Verlander pulled back a little bit early in the count (he averaged 94 mph on the first pitch) and dialed it up when he smelled a strikeout, sitting at 96.3 mph with two strikes.
- That fastball turned collectively turned hitters into Brandon Wood circa 2011. Opponents batted just .215/.290/.358 against Verlander's heat, compared to the .274/.345/.430 average versus starting pitchers.
- Verlander was all about the high heat: about 41 percent of his fastballs were thrown above the belt. David Price and Clayton Kershaw were the only starters to challenge hitters with more high fastballs.
- Lest you think he's fastball-obsessed, Verlander threw his heater a career-low 54 percent of the time. That's down from 59 percent in 2010, and a career-high 67 percent in 2009.
- There's a reason Verlander went to the fastball less often -- he's got three other filthy pitches in his mid-to-high 80s changeup, high-70s-low-80s curveball (each thrown 18-19 percent of the time) and his mid-80s slider (about 8 percent). Check out his opponent slugging percentages with those offerings:
Changeup: .345 SLG%, .385 average for SP
Curveball: .200 SLG%, .339 average for SP
Slider: .276 SLG%, .357 average for SP
- Largely because of the changeup and curve, Verlander had a big reverse platoon split in 2011. He dominated right-handed hitters (.617 on-base-plus slugging percentage), but he torched lefties to the tune of a .504 OPS. That was by far the best for a righty starter against lefty hitters (Matt Cain was second at .523, and Josh Beckett ranked third at a distant .562).
- Verlander threw just one out of every three changeups in the strike zone. You might think that's indicative of below-average control and command, but it was by design. Verlander spotted the change just off the outside corner:
Despite his low zone percentage with the pitch, about 80 percent of Verlander's changeups were classified as "competitive" pitches, meaning they were within 18 inches of the middle of the plate.
- With those changeups so close to the plate, hitters chased lots of them -- 42 percent, compared to the 36 percent average for starters.
- Overall, no starter threw more "competitive" pitches in 2011. After all, why nibble when you've got the best stuff on the planet?
- Verlander just about never hung a curveball high in the zone in 2011. Just three percent of his benders were thrown high, compared to 53 percent that were located at hitters' knees. That's a good way to allow just eight extra-base hits on the pitch all season long.
- The curveball was Verlander's main strikeout pitch, ringing up 95 hitters. Those Ks were split just about evenly between the swinging (48) and called (47) variety. That's in contrast to most starters, who get 3.5 swinging Ks with the curve for every called third strike. Verlander couldn't have been better in terms of location on the curveballs that fanned hitters. Talk about right on the black:
- Speaking of painting the black, Verlander threw 47 curveballs right on the corners. Only curveball specialist Wandy Rodriguez did it more often.
- Verlander started fiddling with a slider in 2009 and it has gradually become a bigger part of his repertoire. He tossed it less than three percent of the time in '09, about seven percent in 2010 and 8-9 percent in 2011. The pitch is more of a hybrid cutter/slider, with short break and near-90 mph velocity. Now, hitters have to worry about two nasty breaking pitches in addition to baseball's best fastball and a killer changeup. Verlander's stuff really goes across the velocity and movement spectrum:
Good luck differentiating between fastball/changeup and slider/curve.
Verlander's MVP-winning 2011 season echoes that of Clemens in Boston 25 years ago. The Rocket tossed 254 innings, also won 24 games, led the league with a 2.48 ERA and just missed out on the triple crown by finishing second to Mark Langston in strikeouts. Clemens' WAR totals (7.9 Baseball-Reference, 8 Fangraphs) were right around those of a deserving position player (teammate Wade Boggs, who finished a distant seventh in balloting), though the pitcher got the honor.
Fans might not agree about whether Verlander was the best candidate, or if a pitcher should ever win MVP without being head and shoulders above contending position players. But I think we can all agree on this: Verlander is at his peak, and he'll be in the Cy Young/MVP discussion for the foreseeable future.