MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Verlander remains top pitcher in AL

Verlander remains top pitcher in AL

Verlander remains top pitcher in AL

Quick: Name the best starting pitcher in the American League.

You said Justin Verlander, right?

Please tell me you said Justin Verlander.

Of course you said Justin Verlander.

It's that easy. At this moment, Verlander is the best pitcher in the AL, and any counter to this claim seems to me to be inadmissible.

Over the last three seasons, Verlander has the lowest ERA (2.79), the lowest Fielding Independent Pitching mark (3.01), the most strikeouts (708), the most wins (59) and the highest win percentage (.728) of any qualifying AL starter. In that span, he's made 75 quality starts, second only to Jered Weaver (76), and he's tossed 713 2/3 innings, second only to Felix Hernandez (715 1/3).

And anecdotally, the Verlander Factor -- i.e. the knowledge that he's looming in that Tigers' rotation and is going to be a nightmare if you're facing him in an upcoming series -- is, of course, incalculable.

Now, in one sense, none of this has anything to do with the 2012 AL Cy Young Award race, because Cy Young Awards, which are handed out by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, are based on single seasons, supposedly independent of overall track record.

And yet, this has everything to do with the 2012 AL Cy Young race, the winner of which will be announced Wednesday. Because until and unless somebody bumps Verlander from his pedestal, even in a six-month spurt, he remains the No. 1 amongst No. 1s.

Verlander is the incumbent, and it is incumbent upon the rest of the field to prove he is not deserving of becoming the first back-to-back AL Cy Young winner since Pedro Martinez (1999-2000). This year's field didn't live up to the task. Not that the Rays' David Price and the Angels' Weaver, the two other finalists for the award, didn't have fantastic seasons, because they did. But those seasons simply weren't dramatically different or better than Verlander's in anything other than win total.

Both Price and Weaver finished 20-5, while Verlander was 17-8. And yes, Price won the ERA crown, with Verlander finishing second. But looking at those three guys, the differences between their ERAs (2.56 for Price, 2.64 for Verlander and 2.81 for Weaver), their WHIPs (1.02 for Weaver, 1.06 for Verlander and 1.10 for Price) and their opponent OPS totals (.601 for Verlander, .602 for Price and .605 for Weaver) are negligible at best.

So then you look at workload, and you note that Verlander threw 27 1/3 innings (or just more than three full games) more than Price and 49 2/3 innings (5 1/2 games) more than Weaver.

You note that Verlander's performance was as good against winning teams (2.63 ERA) as it was against losing teams (2.66), and that he went 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA against the White Sox team the Tigers fended off for the AL Central crown.

You note that Verlander was even better in the late innings (.194 average against, 5.30 strikeouts-to-walk ratio) than he was in the early innings (.216, 3.67).

And if you're so inclined, you might also note that Verlander's WAR mark (7.6) was the best of any pitcher in baseball, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

Those are the kinds of numbers that make Verlander such a bullpen-saving, awe-inspiring, game-changing force. An ace in every sense of the word, despite pitching in front of the most poorly rated defensive clubs in the game and getting the 15th-lowest run support average among 88 qualifying Major League starters.

"The only thing that really kind of hurts me is the win total," Verlander said recently, when asked to assess his Cy Young chances, "but I think we've seen in recent years past that the voters have kind of started to look beyond win totals and really kind of dove into the numbers a little bit more. I think that might be beneficial towards me."

Yes, they have. And yes, that is. Verlander might not have the MVP credentials he had a year ago, but his peripheral numbers retain his placement among the top of the class.

Again, Verlander is the best pitcher in the AL, until and unless somebody proves otherwise. Nobody did that in 2012, and so Verlander has earned his second Cy Young.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.