Just how good is Justin Verlander when measured against the greatest Detroit Tigers’ pitchers?
If you were going to name two starting pitchers to an all-time Tiger franchise team, one would be an easy choice. Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser, a southpaw, is clearly at this point the best man ever to take the mound for the Tigers. But who is the best right-hander?
It’s not easy to tell, for two reasons: the candidates are closely matched, and it’s very difficult to compare starting pitchers across different eras.
Many of the traditional measures of excellence for starting pitchers no longer are meaningful. Starters don’t routinely pitch nine innings anymore, so we can throw complete games and shutouts right out the window. For the curious, George Mullin is the franchise’s all-time leader for complete games (336), and Mickey Lolich — clearly the second-best left-handed Tiger starter ever — pitched the most shutouts, 39.
Wins and losses have never been a reliable measure of a pitcher, either, since they are so team dependent, and they are even less meaningful now that most games get turned over to bullpens sometime after the fifth or sixth inning. It’s rather amazing, nonetheless, that over a century plus, the Tigers haven’t come close to having a 300-game winner. In fact, they’ve only had four with 200 wins, and barely that: Deadball Era pitchers Hooks Dauss (223) and George Mullin (209); Lolich (207); and Newhouser (200). Next on the wins list are Jack Morris (198), Tommy Bridges (194), and Dizzy Trout (161).
Earned run average is extremely era dependent. The top ten franchise leaders in ERA, topped by Harry Coveleskie at 2.34, are all Deadball Era hurlers except for John Hiller, who sneaks in at seventh place (2.83) and was a reliever for most of his career. Nobody thinks any of these ten are among the best Detroit pitchers ever.
Strikeouts may be the best “counting” statistic for a pitcher, but they are skewed in the opposite direction; certainly the Deadball Era pitchers are not well represented here, because batters put most pitches into play then. And these days, K totals keep rising each season, for a variety of reasons. Lolich, with a whopping 2,679, is by far the franchise leader in whiffs, followed by Morris with 1,980, Newhouser with 1,770, Bridges with 1,674, and Verlander with 1,671.
Watch out for that last guy. He already ranks very high by some measurements. Verlander, ninth in franchise wins with 137, is second in winning percentage among Tigers with at least 1,000 innings, at .640, behind only Denny McLain’s .654.
Among those 1,000-innings hurlers, Verlander is tops in strikeouts-to-walk ratio, with more than three times as many whiffs as free passes allowed — and in terms of another more modern stat, WHIP (essentially baserunners allowed per inning), Verlander’s 1.19 is third, behind only McLain’s 1.12 and Coveleski’s 1.13.
It’s hard to sort out these contradictory stats. The history of Tiger pitching is so multifaceted that you see a different name atop almost every career leaderboard, depending on the stat. Today, though, most analysts would agree that two new metrics are by far the most meaningful for pitchers: ERA+ and WAR (Wins Above Replacement).
ERA+ adjusts for the disparities among different baseball milieus over time by calculating how a pitcher’s earned run average compares to his peers. Preventing runs is clearly the key job of any pitcher, and ERA does a pretty good job of measuring that skill, particularly when adjusted for the era. An ERA+ of 100 is league average. This handy measuring stick yields this interesting leaderboard: Newhouser 130, Verlander 127, Bridges 126, Trout 125 (stats with Detroit only) — a ranking that conforms pretty closely both to the well-informed and intuitive judgments of longtime Tiger fans. (FYI — Jim Bunning and Frank Lary come in at 116, McLain at 110, Morris at 108, Lolich at 105, and Dauss and Mullin are just above league average at 102)
If you then employ career WAR to add in the missing key factor of longevity, here’s the fascinating result, according to Baseball Reference.com’s WAR figures: Newhouser 59.0, Bridges 52.5, Lolich 47.5, Trout 45.2, Verlander 40.7, Morris 39.7, Dauss 35.2, Mullin 35.1. These rankings seem just about right to me: I’ve already pegged Prince Hal as the best Tiger hurler ever and Lolich as clearly the second-best lefty. Among other starters, Bridges and Trout are usually considered neck-and-neck behind Newhouser, and our two most best metrics bear that out. But they also say that Verlander is on pace, barring injury, to catch and surpass each of them.
Here’s how it might play out if JV keeps up the good work (without the glitches of the middle four months of the 2013 season): This season JV should easily pass first Bridges and then Newhouser in career strikeouts, and before the All-Star Game in 2015 he might pass Morris too. Lolich is not out of reach, but he’s still about five seasons ahead.
Measuring by ERA+, Verlander is already at least the equal of Bridges and Trout. In his eight full seasons, Verlander has been about a three-win player on average. If he continues to have roughly that kind of value, by the end of 2015 he’ll pass Trout in career WAR, in 2016 he’ll surpass Lolich, and by the time the 2017 season is done, he’ll be right there with Bridges.
At that point, if his health holds up and his skills don’t significantly erode, you could put Verlander’s name in ink as the all-time No. 1 Tiger right-handed starter, and he might then start an exciting stretch drive to challenge Newhouser as the best Detroit pitcher ever. That’s all a bit premature, however. Today, Bridges still edges out Trout and JV. But Tommy and Dizzy have a thoroughbred breathing down their necks.