Verlander’s great season not quite among best

Justin Verlander(notes) is unquestionably having one of the best pitching seasons in recent memory. The Detroit Tigers ace just won his 24th game of the season – the first in the majors since Randy Johnson(notes) in 2002. With his league-leading 2.29 ERA, 244 strikeouts and 244 innings pitched, Verlander is a lock to win the AL Cy Young and has inspired much talk about whether he deserves the MVP as well.

Behind Verlander’s pitching, the Detroit Tigers have clinched the AL Central title and will return to the postseason for the first time since 2006, when Verlander did his part as a rookie. But just how valuable is Verlander to the Tigers? Is there a way to fairly measure his contributions to the team?

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Slideshow: Most dominant seasons by a starting pitcher

One of the most in-vogue – if controversial – new baseball statistics is Win Above Replacement (WAR). The statistic seeks to quantify a player’s value to his team by calculating how many more wins a player would generate for his team as opposed to an average Triple-A, or “replacement level,” player at the same position.

Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn (remember him?) finished with a whopping WAR of 19.8 in ’84, meaning he’d won nearly an extra 20 games for the Providence Grays, in 1884. Indeed, most of the names on the all-time WAR list pitched around the turn of the 20th century. And even in the “Live Ball Era,” most of them were from the 1960s when pitchers dominated.

In order to compare apples to apples, we sorted this list down to the pitchers in the Division Era, which began in 1969 and also happened to be the first year when the pitcher’s mound was lowered. Based on WAR, we found Verlander is in fact having one of the finest seasons for a starting pitcher in half a century. His 8.5 WAR is the second highest in a decade, behind only Zack Greinke’s(notes) 9.0 for the Royals in 2009.

But Verlander just missed out in being included in the top 10 in the Division Era. Steve Carlton, perhaps the best left-handed pitcher of his generation, had by far the best season in the era in 1972, when he went 27-10, led the National League in ERA (1.97), innings pitched (346 1/3), complete games (30) and strikeouts (310). He had a WAR of 12.2, as he delivered his mesmerizing performance on a Phillies team that finished dead last in the National League with a 59-97 record.

Carlton would be included in the top 10 twice, as would the most dominant righty of his generation, Roger Clemens. And then there’s Bob Gibson, probably best remembered for his 1968 season when he overpowered the hitters so thoroughly that the mound was lowered the following season more or less because of that. Yet, in 1969, by the measure of WAR, Gibson did as much for his Cardinals (11.0) as he did the year before (11.9).

Some of the best pitchers in the past 40 years aren’t on this list: Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson come immediately to mind. There are a couple of mild surprises as well. Check them out in our list of most dominant seasons by a starting pitcher (in the division era):

The top five:

5. Gaylord Perry (1972) – WAR of 10.5
4. Wilbur Wood (1971) – WAR of 10.7
3. Bob Gibson (1969) – WAR of 11.0
2. Dwight Gooden (1985) – WAR of 11.7
1. Steve Carlton (1972) – WAR of 12.2
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Updated Tuesday, Sep 20, 2011