AL All-Star Report: Verlander May Be Human But He’s Still The Best

Detroit Tigers’ ace Justin Verlander might not be having a historic season like he did in 2011, when the righthander won 24 games, racked up 251 innings, posted a 2.40 ERA and swept both the Cy Young and MVP awards. The ERA might be a little higher, the pace for wins down by a third, and the innings rate slightly off. But those are more statements about how good ’11 really was, rather than anything negative about 2012. Verlander is following the same path as Roger Clemens did when he did the MVP/Cy Young double-dip in 1986. Clemens was human the next year, but still a very good human, and he won a second straight Cy Young Award. If we had to pick today, Verlander would deserve the same, and he deserves to get the ball a week from tonight in Kansas City for the All-Star game.

Verlander is still just 29 years old and just hitting his career peak. He came up in 2006 when the Tigers shocked baseball by winning the American League pennant. In his first two years, the power pitcher averaged 30+ starts per year and his ERA was in the 3.60s. Some backsliding took place in ’08, as the ERA jumped to 4.84, but in 2009-10 he brought it back down into the 3.40s. And through it all, whether he was in command or struggling, Verlander was always reliable. After his 28-start rookie year in ’06, Verlander has gone to the post 30-plus times every year and racked up 200+ innings every year. In an era where everyone lives and dies by the pitch count, he’s a true thoroughbred and it’s the biggest reason he’s become the gold standard for starting pitchers.

If we had to fill out a five-man All-Star rotation behind Verlander, at least based on current numbers for this year, three more choices would be easy calls. C.J. Wilson may have jumped from the Rangers to the Angels, but he didn’t have the same troubles that another notable free agent on his team did in adjusting to the pressure. Wilson’s 104 innings are ace-caliber (Verlander leads the league with 123, and it drops to 110 from there), his ERA is 2.33 and the nine wins have been vital on a team that had a hard time getting W’s for a while. At least part of the void Wilson left behind in Texas has been filled by Matt Harrison, who’s 11-3 record and 105 innings jump out at you, and the 3.16 ERA is very competitive, especially in a hitter’s haven like Arlington. Then there’s Tampa Bay’s David Price. He outdueled Verlander this past weekend, has 11 wins on a team that doesn’t score many runs and has a 2.92 ERA while matching Wilson for innings. Based strictly on 2012 performance to date, I find it hard to argue with the notion that these three, along with Verlander, are the best four in the American League.

It’s picking a fifth starter that becomes tougher and now you have to focus on value judgments. Jason Hammel in Baltimore is pretty consistent across the statistical board. The 3.43 ERA is good, especially given he pitches in the AL East, while the record is 8-4. It would be nice to see more than 99 innings pitched—a figure that slots him outside the top 14. I consider that a key benchmark since a top 14 stat would allow you as the #1 starter if talent were distributed equally.

TheSportsNotebook, like almost everyone else, looks at ERA first and foremost, and by that standard, I at least owe an explanation for the dismissal of Los Angeles’ Jered Weaver and Chicago’s Chris Sales, who are 1-2 in the American League for this stat. Both are at 81 innings due to injuries. It’s not their fault and in the case of Weaver his talent and the fact he’s currently healthy certainly suggest he’ll be in this discussion when it’s revisited at the end of the regular season. But when you consider the top 28 in the league—allowing two starters per staff in a world of equal talent distribution—have at least 93, and you see just how far behind Weaver and Sales are in workload. I can’t pick them if our criteria is 2012 performance to date.

Jake Peavy (Chicago), Felix Hernandez (Seattle) and Hiroki Kuroda (New York) have competitive ERAs, at 2.96, 3.09 and 3.17 respectively. Peavy and Hernandez have the innings, and Kuroda’s 102 innings are at least respectable and he can claim having to pitch in a hitter’s park against the toughest division in baseball. Because of that I could overlook the ERA differential, but I don’t like that Kuroda is only 8-7. Peavy and Hernandez are only one game over .500 themselves, but they don’t have the Yankee lineup supporting them. With 112 IP, I like Peavy as the best of this trio.

Since I’ve mentioned innings pitched repeatedly, some honorable mention should go to pitchers who have piled up a good workload, even if the overall body of work can’t get them into an All-Star discussion. I refer specifically to Seattle’s Jason Vargas, whose 117 IP are second in the American League. If he can do something about that 4.31 ERA, we can live with his .500 record, given the team he plays on. Justin Masterson for Cleveland has settled down after a bad start. He’s thrown 110 IP and with his ERA at 3.92, he’s a prime candidate for a second half push. James Shields (Tampa) and Ricky Romero (Toronto) are both 100+, but the ERAs are a bit high, especially Romero who’s struggling along at 5.35. And though he’s now on the disabled list, C.C. Sabathia continues to be a horse in the Bronx, with 107 IP and a 3.45 ERA to show for the work.

If you’re a traditionalist who wants wins then two other Yankees should be on your radar. After bad starts, both Phil Hughes and Ian Nova have won nine games. Both have ERA in the low 4s which is too high for my blood, at least in this All-Star context, but their turnaround is a big reason the Yanks are leading the AL East. And Texas’ Yu Darvish has won 10 games, worked 102 IP and delivered a 3.52 ERA.

Darvish looks worth all the hype that accompanied him from Japan and I’d narrow the choice for the fifth spot in this All-Star rotation to him and Peavy, who joins White Sox teammate Adam Dunn in having a comeback year. While I like Darvish’s win totals—I’m somewhere between the traditionalists, who still believe in this stat and the sabermetricians who think it’s worthless—and could live with his ERA being a higher (3.52 to 2.96) given the different parks he and Peavy pitch in, the 112-102 innings edge for the White Sox’ hurler is significant and for that reason TheSportsNotebook anoints Jake Peavy to join Justin Verlander, C.J. Wilson, David Price and Matt Harrison in its midseason American League All-Star rotation.