Since the start of the 2009 season, there have been only two players to post a WAR that is greater than or equal to 25. One of these players, as I’m sure you suspected, is Albert Pujols, who was right on the line with an even 25. The other player, coming in at 27.4 wins above replacement, is Tigers’ starter Justin Verlander. Verlander is not only first on the list, but he leads the next closest competitor by 2.4 wins.
Verlander, who was named last year’s American League MVP, is so valuable because he is able to throw a lot of innings year in and year out without sacrificing performance. Over the last five seasons Verlander has thrown at least 200 innings each year, and in the last three years he has averaged 238 IP while never allowing his FIP to climb above 3.00. He has carried that success into the current season, during which he has already thrown 196.1 innings with an ERA of 2.80 and a FIP of 2.95. Much of his success can be attributed to his ability to throw hard, even late in games, and work in the strike zone. His fastball has averaged 94.8 mph over his career, and he has been known to reach back for triple digits whenever needed. Add that to a repertoire that includes three other plus pitches, and you have a pitcher who is going to miss a lot of bats. This is illustrated by his 25.3 K% this season, and an impressive 11.4 swinging strike percentage (league average is 9%).
Missing bats is certainly a major part of the battle, but there are many instances of pitchers who have nasty stuff who simply can’t throw strikes, and therefore give no reason for the hitter to offer at their pitches. Verlander is not one of those pitchers. His walk rate so far in 2012 is 6.4%, and it was even lower last season. Again it comes back to his devastating fastball. He gets away with throwing a lot of pitches in the strike zone because the majority of those pitches are mid-90’s fastballs. Locating his off-speed pitches, especially the changeup, makes it extremely difficult for hitters to get ahead in the count. And when Verlander starts an at-bat with strike one, his FIP drops to 1.61.
There is no clear-cut answer to the question “who is the best pitcher in baseball?” but one could make a pretty convincing argument for Justin Verlander. His durability, impressive repertoire, and good control have allowed him to dominate American League hitters over the past few seasons. Simply put, Justin Verlander is really good.