Justin Verlander’s 2011 was good, but was it the best ever for a Detroit Tigers starter?

Detroit Free Press

With the Houston Astros in town to face the Detroit Tigers, and Daz Cameron and Jake Rogers starting to earn serious playing time in Detroit, it’s only natural for our thoughts to drift to Justin Verlander. Yes, we know that the righty is out all season recovering from Tommy John surgery; we won’t be seeing him at Comerica Park this weekend.

Still, it’s a good time to look back at his dominant 2011 season, in which he won the pitching Triple Crown (leading the American League in wins, ERA and strikeouts), the Cy Young and the MVP. Last month brought the 10th anniversary of his second no-hitter with the Tigers, in which he was a walk away from perfection and still faced the minimum 27 batters.

Friday was the 10th anniversary of another symbol of J.V.’s dominance — a run in which he lasted at least eight innings in five consecutive starts, from June 4-25. During that stretch, he struck out 48 while walking four and allowing four earned runs over 42 innings. Or, if you prefer, his franchise-record 12-start win streak turns 10 years old next month. Celebrate however you like.

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But all that dominance got us thinking: Was Verlander’s 2011 the most dominant season for a Tigers starter ever? Here are our rankings, with two caveats: First, the starter had to make at least 20 starts in a season for the Tigers — sorry, 1995 David Wells, you were traded to Cincy two starts too soon — and second, we’re only going as far back as 1913, when the earned run became an official stat. Anyway, here’s the rest of the best:

Honorable mention No. 2: Al Benton’s 1945

Key stats: 27 starts, 13-8, 2.02 ERA, 76 SO, 63 BB, 191 2/3 innings, 1.242 WHIP.

Trophy case: None.

The buzz: He had an all-time season, with an ERA 75% better than the league average in his first year back from World War II. (That ERA+ of 175 ranked third among all Tigers pitchers’ seasons.) But he also had a four-start stretch in August in which he allowed 24 runs in 21 1/3 innings — with just 10 of those runs scored as earned. Award voters were less than impressed, as he finished 23rd in MVP voting (the Cy Young wasn’t a thing until 1956) behind six other pitchers, including two of his rotation-mates.

Honorable mention No. 1: Mickey Lolich’s 1971

Key stats: 45 starts, 25-14, 2.92 ERA, 308 SO, 92 BB, 376 IP, 1.138 WHIP

Trophy case: All-Star, No. 2 in Cy Young voting, No. 5 in MVP voting

The buzz: We’ll almost certainly never see another season like Lolich’s 1971, if only for the sheer workload: Lolich threw 29 complete games, including five that lasted 10 innings or longer. And those 376 innings? Only one pitcher — knuckleballer Wilbur Wood — has even broken the 350-inning mark since, and he only did it in 1972 and 1973. Unfortunately, the numbers that make his season incredible also ding him on the dominance factor. Yes, he struck out 308, but he managed just 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings, only good for fifth in the AL that season. His ERA of 2.92 is impressive, but it was only the 10th in the AL, and just 24% better than league average. It may not have been “The Year of the Pitcher” after mounds were lowered, but pitchers still had a healthy advantage over hitters; the AL adopted the designated hitter for 1973 in an attempt to further curb this. Finally — and this is probably the result of Tiger’s Stadium’s homer-friendly dimensions, considering Lolich’s 25/11 home-and-away homer split — he gave up 36 freakin’ homers, second most in the league, at a rate of 0.86 per nine innings, nearly double the rate of the league leaders. It was a majestic year, but it can’t quite crack the top 10 in our opinion.

10. David Price’s 2015

Key stats: 21 starts, 9-4, 2.53 ERA, 138 SO, 29 BB, 146 IP, 1.110 WHIP.

Trophy case: All-Star, No. 2 in Cy Young voting

The buzz: The Cy Young voters got to consider Price’s 9-1 run with a 2.30 ERA after he was dealt to Toronto, but we’re only looking at his Tigers tenure. While a 9-4 record may not seem that imposing, the Tigers scored just eight runs combined in Price’s four losses. Meanwhile, he struck out 23.3% of the batters he faced and walked just 4.9%. Another argument for this list is made by the Blue Jays: They valued him so much, they gave up both Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris for two months of the Tigers’ then-ace. A hefty Price tag, indeed. (We’re sorry.)

9. Mark Fidrych’s 1976

Key stats: 29 starts, 19-9, 2.34 ERA, 97 SO, 53 BB, 250 1/3 IP, 1.079 WHIP.

Trophy case: All-Star, AL Rookie of the Year, No. 2 in Cy Young voting, No. 11 in MVP voting.

The buzz: “The Bird” burst onto the scene and became a national phenomenon with his talking to the ball, mound maintenance and, oh yeah, a pitch-to-contact approach that saw him give up at least nine hits in 11 of his 29 starts and 12 homers overall. Of course, that contact resulted in a lot of double plays (25) and a whopping 59 assists. (For comparison, 2019’s pitcher-assist leaders, Max Fried and Zack Greinke each had 34.)

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8. Justin Verlander’s 2012

Key stats: 33 starts, 17-8, 2.64 ERA, 239 SO, 60 BB, 238 1/3 IP, 1.057 WHIP

Trophy case: All-Star, No. 2 in Cy Young voting, No. 8 in MVP voting.

The buzz: Squint a little and you could make the case that this was J.V.’s most dominant year: No gaudy win streak or no-hitter, and only 17 wins, but an oh-so-slightly better strikeout rate and an MLB-best six complete games. Had his starts been lined up to avoid starting the All-Star Game — in which he gave up five runs in one inning — he might have gotten an extra start and edged past Price for the Cy Young, too.

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7. Anibal Sanchez’s 2013

Key stats: 29 starts, 14-8, 2.57 ERA, 202 SO, 54 BB, 182 IP, 1.154 WHIP.

Trophy case: No. 4 in Cy Young voting.

The buzz: The Tigers probably didn’t expect this performance when they traded for Sanchez at the deadline in 2012. He led the AL in ERA and struck out 27.1% of the batters he faced. It’s Sanchez, not Verlander, who has the strikeout record at Comerica Park; he struck out 17 Atlanta batters over eight innings on April 26. He also kept the ball in the park, allowing just nine homers, with six of those coming with the bases empty.

6. Dizzy Trout’s 1944

Key stats: 40 starts, 27-14, 2.12 ERA, 144 SO, 83 BB, 352 1/3 IP, 1.127 WHIP.

Trophy case: All-Star, No. 2 in MVP voting.

The buzz: Trout also made nine appearances in relief, meaning that if you attended a Tigers game in 1944, you had a 1-in-3 chance of seeing Trout at some point. Oh, and of the 40 games he started, he finished 33. Even for the era, Trout’s usage was extreme. That complete-game total, and his 351 1/3 innings, were the most by any pitcher in 21 years. Nearly half (19) of his starts came on two or fewer days rest. From April to August, Trout posted a 1.90 ERA in 280 innings. And then he posted a 2.99 ERA over 72 1/3 innings in September, over nine starts as the Tigers tried and failed to hold off the St. Louis Browns for the pennant. (We might have to go onto the 10-day IL just typing those numbers.) His quality might not have been enough to best Hal Newhouser in the MVP vote, but he certainly delivered the quantity. (Trout also swung a mean bat that season, with a slash line of .271/.317/.429 in 144 plate appearances)

5. Bobo Newsom’s 1940

Key stats: 34 starts, 21-5, 2.83 ERA, 164 SO, 100 BB, 264 IP, 1.269 WHIP.

Trophy case: All-Star, No. 4 in MVP voting.

The buzz: When Newsom was focused, he was almost unhittable. Consider his performance in the 1940 World Series against the Reds: In Game 1, with his father in the stands in Cincinnati, he scattered eight hits and two runs over nine innings. Newsom’s father died of a heart attack the next day, and Newsom didn’t pitch again until starting Game 5, which he dedicated to his father. Newsom allowed three hits and struck out seven in the Tigers’ 8-0 victory. He then returned to start Game 7 on one day’s rest, striking out six and allowing two runs over eight innings, but the Tigers lost, 2-1, with just two hits in the final five innings.

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4. Denny McLain’s 1968

Key stats: 41 starts, 31-6, 1.96 ERA, 280 SO, 63 BB, 336 IP, 0.905 WHIP.

Trophy case: All-Star, Cy Young Award, MVP Award.

The buzz: Yes, it was “The Year of the Pitcher,” which explains how McLain finished fourth in the AL in ERA and second in strikeouts. But almost no one had the control he had; he had the second fewest walks-per-nine-innings, at 1.688. And nobody finished games like McLain in 1968; his 28 CGs were nine more than the runner-up. (McLain’s six shutouts were only good for a tie for second in the AL.)

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3. Justin Verlander’s 2011

Key stats: 34 starts, 24-5, 2.40 ERA, 250 SO, 57 BB, 251 IP, 0.920 WHIP.

Trophy case: All-Star, Cy Young Award, MVP Award, Triple Crown.

The buzz: The raw numbers — including leading the AL in wins, ERA and strikeouts — are impressive enough. But one fact that wowed MVP voters was Verlander’s performances after Tigers losses: He went 16-3 in those games. As the Freep’s John Lowe noted in his analysis of Verlander’s MVP victory, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, that was the most wins after a loss by a pitcher in one season since Steve Carlton had 19 for the 1972 Phillies (according to the Elias Sports Bureau).

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2. Hal Newhouser’s 1946

Key stats: 34 starts, 26-9, 1.94 ERA, 275 SO, 98 BB, 292 2/3 IP, 1.069 WHIP.

Trophy case: All-Star, No. 2 in MVP voting.

The buzz: Newhouser struck out at least nine batters in 18 of his 34 starts, more than Bob Feller (who led the AL in strikeouts in ’46, but only had 17 starts with at least nine strikeouts). Newhouser wasn’t quite at the dominating standard he’d set during World War II, but opposing batters pretty clearly had no interest in hanging around the batter’s box, as they hit just .201 off him with a .269 OBP.

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1. Hal Newhouser’s 1945

Key stats: 36 starts, 25-9, 1.81 ERA, 212 SO, 110 BB, 313 1/3 IP, 1.114 WHIP.

Trophy case: MVP Award, Triple Crown.

The buzz: The margins of Newhouser’s leads in wins, strikeouts and ERA to win the Pitching Triple Crown: 4 (wins), strikeouts (83) and 0.21 (ERA).  Even with his eternal control issues — including 10 wild pitches — “Prince Hal” still finished third in the AL in WHIP and only allowed five home runs. FIVE. In the live-ball era (since 1920), eight pitchers have thrown at least 300 innings and allowed five homers or fewer; Newhouser was the first to do it since 1928, and no one has done it since.

This story was updated from the print edition  

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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