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McCosky: Making a case for Verlander and the Cy Young

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Justin Verlander

Atlanta – When it comes to the Cy Young conversation these days, the Tigers’ Justin Verlander is a little like a third-party candidate. Most of the talk is surrounding the primary candidates – Boston’s Rick Porcello, Cleveland’s Corey Kluber and Baltimore closer Zach Britton.

Verlander’s name generally comes up in passing. Like, “Hey, don’t sleep on Verlander. He’s having a heck of a year.”

Truth is, a strong case could be made for him winning the Cy Young Award this season, even with his early struggles.

“You could make the argument that he is a better pitcher now than he was even before,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “Certainly, he’s had a renaissance. He’s doing some things better than he was in his Cy Young prime. He’s made some adjustments – and as a result, he been one of the best pitchers in the league.”

Here’s the numerical argument:

With one start left in the regular season – Sunday against the Braves – he leads the American League with 246 strikeouts. His 1.002 WHIP and .263 on-base percentage against also lead the league. His opponent OPS is .634, which is third in the league.

His 3.10 ERA ranks third, his 134 ERA-plus ranks sixth. His pitcher’s WAR is second (6.3).

There hasn’t been a better starting pitcher in the second half of the season. Since the All-Star break, Verlander is 8-2 with a 2.00 ERA and a 0.852 WHIP. He’s averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings with a 5.5-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Opponents in his last 17 starts are hitting .181 against him with a .238 on-base percentage and a .565 OPS.

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“He’s a different pitcher than he was a few years ago,” Ausmus said. “People in this organization, baseball people, assumed he’d be able to pitch, even when his fastball declined, just because he has four pitches and he’s got command.

“But he’s also made some adjustments on his slider, adjustments with his arm slot. He’s changed the way he prepares for his starts. And, there’s the fact that he’s healthy.”

This is Verlander’s first fully healthy season since 2013. It has been, as Ausmus said, a renaissance year for him. But it would be wrong to suggest he’s had to reinvent himself.

The velocity on his fastball isn't ringing triple digits on the radar gun anymore, but he's still averaging between 94-95 mph. He is still able to dial it up to 97-98, even late in games. And he’s still generating swings and misses on 14 percent of them.

“Maybe this is Phase I (of Verlander’s transition),” Ausmus said. “Maybe there will be a Phase II. I am not sure. But Phase I is almost as good as the original – the Beta version.”

Back in his Cy Young prime, 2011 and 2012, Verlander didn’t have to worry about scouting reports and game plans. He could go out every fifth day and overpower lineups. These days, he’s scours the reports and has become adept at determining and exploiting hitters’ weaknesses.

His ability to read swings and setup hitters, things he never much concerned himself with in his younger years, is vastly improved.

Since the All-Star break, Justin Verlander is 8-2 with a 2.00 ERA and a 0.852 WHIP.

But if there was one thing that turned his season around, it’s been the development of his slider. After he was shelled in Cleveland in early May, he and pitching coach Rich Dubee began working on modifying the way he gripped the pitch and the arm slot from which he threw it.

The result has been a slider that is much firmer – averaging 90 mph over his last eight starts – and tighter. It closely resembles a cut fastball, though he adamantly says he does not throw a cutter.

He can also throw the pitch slower with more depth, when he chooses. The improvement of the slider has been vital in his ability to get right-handed hitters out again.

In 2014, right-handed hitters battered him at a .321 clip. This year, righties are hitting 100 points less – .221.

Overall, opponents are hitting .158 against the slider, swinging and missing at 15 percent of them.

Has he done enough to win the Cy Young Award? Probably not. Porcello has 22 wins with the second-best ERA-plus (145) and WHIP (1.009) in the league. He is averaging nearly six strikeouts for every walk and he went undefeated at Fenway Park this season.

Similarly strong cases can and will be made for Kluber, Britton and the White Sox’s Chris Sale.

There will be some that dock Verlander because he’s allowed a team-high 30 home runs this season, though 24 of them were solo shots. There will be some that dock him for his poor first half (8-6, 4.07).

But when you line all the candidates up and sort out all the numbers – old-school and sabermetric – Verlander is as worthy of the award as anybody.

Twitter @cmccosky