August 11, 2011
Baseball isn’t tailored to individual exploits; batting orders and starting rotations reduce the impact that any one player can make, and teams have only limited control of when a player’s appearances occur. Nonetheless, at times this season it’s seemed as though Justin Verlander has put Detroit on his proverbial back. The Tigers, who currently hold a two-game lead over the Indians in the AL Central, have won 68 percent of their games started by Verlander this season; with anyone else but Verlander on the mound, they’ve been a sub-.500 team.
The big righty hasn’t just been excellent, posting a 16-5 record and a 2.30 ERA and trailing only Roy Halladay, Jered Weaver, and Cliff Lee among pitchers with 4.5 Wins Above Replacement, he’s also been one of the hardest-working men in baseball: his 2952 total pitches and 118.3 average pitches per start are tops in the majors, and among regular starters, only he and Jered Weaver have yet to throw 100 pitches or fewer in an outing. What’s more, those long outings haven’t seemed to take a toll on his arm: Verlander’s four-seamer has averaged 95.4 miles per hour in the ninth inning, even faster than its recorded speed in the first.
Verlander’s brilliance has been made even more obvious by the mediocrity of his supporting cast; no other Tigers pitcher has made more than two starts this season while maintaining even a league-average ERA, and Verlander’s effectiveness and durability have allowed him to take on 25 percent of the innings thrown by the team’s starters, a distinction shared by only the Yankees’ CC Sabathia.
The gulf between Verlander and the Tigers’ next-best starter, whether judged on a rate basis (Rick Porcello) or a cumulative basis (Max Scherzer) is the largest between first- and second-best starters on any team in the majors save Cleveland. Both the difference between Verlander’s 3.31 Fair Run Average (a statistic on the RA scale that measures the effects of a pitcher’s sequencing without unduly crediting him for the performance of his fielders) and Porcello’s 4.44 and the difference between Verlander’s 45 percent share of the team’s total starting pitcher WARP and Scherzer’s 18 percent cut outstrip all but the gap between the Indians’ Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin.
The Indians recently addressed their imbalance by acquiring Ubaldo Jimenez, but the Tigers are unlikely to reap quite the same short-term reward from their own trade for Doug Fister. Can Detroit win with Verlander alone? Prior research has revealed that the Tigers’ top-heavy lineup probably won’t impede their performance, but what can teams of the past tell us about top-heavy rotations?
The good news for the Tigers is that even among the most successful teams—those that made the playoffs—Verlander’s single-handed mound mastery is hardly unprecedented. In fact, his current 45 percent share of his team’s cumulative starting pitcher WARP would only just barely crack the top 25 figures among aces of past playoff teams since 1950. That list is led by Randy Johnson, who earned a whopping 71 percent of the WARP generated by Mariners starters in 1995, the year that he claimed his first Cy Young Award and the M’s made it to the sixth game of the ALCS. The second-best starter on that team, Tim Belcher, was barely better than league average. Here are the 10 top-heaviest rotations for playoff teams in non-strike seasons, with the percentage of starter innings pitched and WARP accrued by each ace:
Having a starter in the midst of a historically great season like Johnson’s ’95 or Martinez’s ’99 doesn’t guarantee a title; nor does failing to surround a number-one arm with a deep support staff preclude a team from popping October bubbly. Of the 24 post-1950 playoff teams to have featured an ace with at least as little starting support as Verlander, 12 made the World Series, and five went all the way. The Tigers surely would feel more confident if they could pair their flamethrowing first starter with a stronger second, but in a short series, a little Verlander could go a long way.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .