Justin Verlander's Season in Context

Baseball’s best pitcher, Justin Verlander, won his 24th game on Sunday, improving his record to 24-5, and becoming only the fourth pitcher since 1990 to win 24 games and the first since 2002. If Verlander wins one more game, in what will likely be either one or two more starts, he will become the first player since 1990, when Bob Welch won 27 games, to win 25 or more games.

Verlander is obviously an elite pitcher having a great year, but there is more to his year than that. Twenty years is a long time between 25 game winners; even nine years between 24 game winners is a lot. Without putting undo emphasis on simple counting statistics like wins or on round numbers like 25, it is clear that in recent decades, pitchers have been far less likely to rack up large numbers of wins. During the 1970s, for example, 14 pitchers won 24 or more games; since 1991, only three pitchers have. There are a few other examples kind of this in baseball. Between 1966 and 1989, only one player, George Foster in 1977, hit more than 50 home runs in a season, a feat that was far more common between about 1920 and 1965 and occurred fairly frequently again beginning in 1990. Similarly, between 1932 and 1961, only one player, George Case in 1943, stole 60 or more bases in a season.

Beginning in 1990 with Cecil Fielder hitting home runs and in 1962 with Maury Wills stealing bases, high single season home run and stolen base totals respectively, became far more common. Verlander’s season raises the question of whether he is more like Case and Foster or like Fielder and Wills. In other words, is his season simply an exception, or is it a sign that perhaps the game is changing.

If Verlander’s season is an aberration and high win totals continue to recede into the past, then his season will still stand out as a great season. It is also possible that Verlander’s season, specifically with regards to his win totals, will end up looking more like Fielder’s 1990 which, at the time seemed like a great home run year for Fielder, but was more of a harbinger of what was coming and quickly forgotten in the fifteen or so year offensive explosion that followed.

It is apparent that pitching is making a comeback in recent years as overall offensive numbers are evening out a bit since their modern peak from roughly 1994-2005. This has, for the most part played itself out with more pitchers putting up good ERAs and impressive strikeout numbers as overall offensive numbers have decline. During these peak offensive years, two players posted 24 win seasons, John Smoltz in 1996 and Randy Johnson in 2002, but these did not signal a change in anything. Verlander’s year could be different, not just because we may be entering a more pitching friendly era, but because managers and others may have begun to learn some lessons from that era regarding pitcher usage, what can be expected from a pitcher, pitch counts and bullpen use which may help starters win more games. Obviously, Verlander has also benefited by a Tiger offense that is good, but far from spectacular.

Verlander’s season, if it is not an aberration but the beginning of another period when winning 22-26 games a year is more common, should also change the 300 win discussion. It is common, almost required, for many baseball fans to decry the 300 win pitcher as something of the past, despite Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson joining that elite group in recent years and Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens both recently retiring with more than 350 wins. If 20+ win seasons become more common again, with totals of 24 or more occurring more than once a decade that 300 career wins will seem much more attainable. Verlander, for his part, has begun to establish himself as a 300 win candidate with this season as he now has 107 wins through his 27 year old season. He is ahead of the pace of several 300 game winners such as Johnson, Tom Glavine, Steve Carlton and Don Sutton.