2011 AL MVP: How Justin Verlander took over the league.

by Nicholas Cicale (@nickcicale)

2011 was an amazing baseball season for American League hitters.  With Jose Bautista, Jacoby Ellsbury, Miguel Cabrera and Curtis Granderson all knocking 30 balls out of the park and driving in over 100 runs each,  the race for the AL Most Valuable Player award was bound to be a heated one.  However, with so many similar stories between the four athletes, it’s safe to say that MVP voters we’re searching for someone who stood out from the crowd of hitters.  Who they found was Justin Verlander, a man who dominated the other candidates both on the field and in the media.
The righty became the first starting pitcher to win the MVP award since Roger Clemens’ 24 win season in 1986, twenty-five years ago.  But anyone who followed the 29 year old Tigers ace at all throughout the season probably expected the outcome.

“There are 3 or 4 good pitchers in the league, but right now he is better than any other, one hundred percent,” said Joaquin Hernandez, a former Cuban baseball player.  “If he stays healthy he will have a better career that Roy Halladay [and] Lee.”

He dominated opposing team’s lineups all year, but signs of a special season first became noticeable in May, when Verlander threw his second career no-hitter against the Blue Jays.  The hitless streak continued through the 6th inning of his following start in impressive back-to-back victories.  The success couldn’t be attributed to lucky fielding or a slew of ground ball outs either, but Verlander’s ability to accumulated a surplus of strikeouts against two solid lineups, a notion that was again put on display  a month later, when he fanned  a career high 14 batters against the Diamondbacks in an 8 inning shutout, marking his 10th win before the All-Star break.

With the thrills of the young season in the rear view, Verlander began taking over the league in the second half.  After a tough July 15th loss, Verlander won 12 straight decisions to close out the regular season, a span of two and a half months.  With a Major League leading 24 wins, 250 strikeouts and AL lowest ERA of 2.29, he grabbed the AL Triple Crown of pitching, and combined with a League high 251 innings pitched, Verlander effectively eliminated any doubt that he truly was the most commanding player of the 2011 MLB season.

Compared  to the other aces around the league, Verlander is irreplaceable for his team because he contributes to their success even when he isn’t out on the field.  His ability to eat up innings every outing, no matter what the circumstance, helps the team preserve the arms in their bullpen, keeping  relief pitchers fresh for games down the road where another starter might need some help.  Most pitchers experience a drop in velocity as they strain into the later innings of a game, but Verlander seems only to excel as the games continue.  His fastball velocity actually increases throughout a game, hitting 99 and 100 miles per hour in the 5th and 6th innings and catching opposing batters off guard.  The late game antics lead to 4 complete games, 2 shutouts and a season where Verlander through at least 100 pitches in every outing.

“Verlander pitched masterfully all year and was the guy [the Tigers] went to when they needed a win,” said baseball fan Troy Provost-Heron.  “He was a product of his own success in 2011.”

It would be hard to argue against Verlander’s raw  talent, but he  actually gives a lot of the credit to the rest of his team, and for good reason.  Lead by Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers had a stellar offense in 2011, one that could be even more potent in 2012 with the addition of Prince Fielder.  Because they often had an early lead, Verlander would go through games unstressed and in total control, even when he did give up the occasional run .  Once he would leave a game, the back end of the team’s bullpen would take over and hold on to the lead.  Joaquin Benoit was one of the better eight inning guys around, and closer Jose Valverde went the entire 2011 season without blowing a save, keeping all of Verlander’s wins in tact and his record unblemished.

Last season’s MVP and Cy Young awards, along with 2006 Rookie of the Year honors, help display that Justin Verlander will go down as one of the greatest pitchers of all time.  The MVP already puts him in elite pitching company with only 24 other pitchers since 1931.  The only hardware he’s missing is  a World Series title.  And with pitchers like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Chris Carpenter all  performing at an elite level in their mid-thirties, Verlander will have ample time to make another run for a title in the future, and might pick up a few more awards along the way.

“I think he can have another season that’s just as good as last years,” said Andre Canellas, a baseball fan at FSU. “He’s still in his prime, and has continuously improved throughout his career. Other than his fluky 2008, he hasn’t had less than 17 wins in any season and I don’t expect him to slow down any time soon.”

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