I often think I’m enlightened when it comes to understanding sample size. For example, when someone who’s 3-8 against a particular pitcher doesn’t get a start in the wild card game over someone who’s 2-12 against him, I don’t mind at all. Of course, just when we think we’re enlightened, we can sometimes be slapped in the face with how little we actually understand.
See, sample size isn’t just about having enough plate appearances to make a particular judgment. It’s reviewing enough seasons of a player’s career before making judgments. I’m here to say that I judged Justin Verlander. And I might have gotten it wrong. When you go from being a great pitcher, which Verlander was in 2011-2012, to being a very good pitcher (2013), to being a mediocre pitcher (2014), to being an injured pitcher (2015), your chances of reviving your career at the age of 33 aren’t that good. But don’t look now — the stalled Hall of Fame case for Justin Verlander, a case I had pretty much closed prior to the season, is back on track after a year where he posted 6.62 WAR.
In fact, Verlander was so good this year that he was the best pitcher in the American League by WAR for the third time in his career. After a very sketchy six-start stretch to begin the season, Verlander was excellent. From his second start in May through season’s end, he posted a 2.42 ERA and a K/BB ratio of more than 5 to 1. For the last three months of the year he had an ERA of 1.98 and still had a 5 to 1 K/BB ratio.
By my overall numbers, after an adjustment I made during the season to decrease the value of playoff performance by just a bit, Verlander passed a host of outstanding pitchers on my all-time list by MAPES (my pitcher evaluations system). For those who are counting, here’s the list: Tommy Bridges, Ron Guidry, Bob Lemon, Frank Viola, Eddie Rommel, Larry Jackson, Cliff Lee, Jerry Koosman, Felix Hernandez, Dizzy Dean, Al Orth, Chief Bender, Noodles Hahn, Kenny Rogers, David Wells, Jesse Tannehill, Hippo Vaughn, Billy Pierce, Jim Kaat, Mark Langston, Eppa Rixey, Mickey Lolich, Wilbur Wood, Carl Mays, Roy Oswalt, Babe Adams, Dizzy Trout, Tony Mullane, Goose Gossage, Nap Rucker, Burleigh Grimes, Jim McCormick.
All told, Verlander began the season ranked #117 among pitchers. After putting up 6.62 WAR in 2016, he’s now up to #86. And he’s right on the precipice of the HoME. Within one MAPES point is HoMEr Pud Galvin. Whitey Ford, Bucky Walters, Sandy Koufax, and Chuck Finley are all within two MAPES points. And three more MAPES points pretty much guarantees that Verlander will reach the HoME shortly after the end of his career. A season of 5.03 WAR in 2017 gets him ahead of Bob Caruthers on my list. That’s my line where there’s virtually no chance you’re not a HoMEr.
There’s no sure thing that Verlander puts up another 6.62 WAR next year, or even 5.03. And there’s no guarantee that he ever adds the total value he needs to get into the HoME. Then again, this year reminded me I should temper my expectations in both ways. N
To my surprise, Justin Verlander once again looks like a guy who has a real chance of being enshrined in the Hall of Miller and Eric one day.
Sample size isn’t always just about games, it’s about seasons too.