You could be forgiven for not realizing it, given the overwhelming media hype that’s surrounded the Tigers ace over the past few weeks, but Sabathia and Verlander are having virtually identical seasons. Don’t believe me? The numbers don’t lie:
Most of those numbers favor Verlander but not by a lot when you break them down. The innings pitched advantage largely disappears when you consider that the Yankees have been using a 6 man rotation for much of the second half because they just can’t kick their A.J. Burnett habit. The ERA difference is probably explained by the large gap in the BABIP against (.235 for Verlander and .320 for C.C.) which is probably pretty anomalous. Sabathia has given up a pretty large number of line drives, but not so many more than Verlander, though Verlander does seem to be pretty good at inducing pop ups.
The number that really intrigues me is the home run rate, if only because there’s really no reason Verlander’s should be that much higher than Sabathia’s Verlander does give up a lot more flyballs than Sabathia, (42.1% to 29.9%), but as I just mentioned, Verlander gets a good rate of infield flyballs (11%). Additionally, he plays his home games in Comerica Park, which you would assume would help him limit the long balls. And indeed, Comerica favors pitchers when it comes to home runs, according to ESPN, if only a little bit. But by contrast, Yankee Stadium is the 3rd most hitter friendly park in the majors when it comes to the deep fly. Considering the park factors and the infield fly balls, it’s hard to really square the fact that Verlander has given up more home runs than Sabathia and has a higher HR/FB rate by putting context with the numbers. It seems we have to conclude that Verlander is just more prone to giving up home runs than Sabathia is.
But the biggest factor working in Sabathia’s favor, in my opinion, is a familiar one; the division. Now I’m generally not someone to engage in a lot of A.L. East triumphalism, because I think people have a tendency to really overstate the effects of the division, but in this case I don’t think you can ignore the impact it had on the two pitchers. The A.L. Central is, well it’s not good, to be polite. The Twins and White Sox, in particular, have absolutely atrocious offenses, ranking in the bottom three of the American League with a wRC+ of 82 and 90, respectively. Only Seattle is worse. By contrast, in the East, only the Orioles have a wRC+ below 100, and their mark (96) is better than the Indians, as well as the aforementioned Twinkies and White Sox. Verlander has made 12 starts against those three teams.
For a fuller picture, here’s a comparison of how Sabathia and Verlander fare against their respective divisions.
And remember, the Tigers have the best offense in the Central, and Verlander doesn’t have to face them. On the other hand, the Red Sox have the best offense in the American League, and Sabathia’s 31 innings pitched against them are pulling up those averages.
This isn’t really to say the decision is clear cut, indeed the point is basically to say it isn’t clear cut. The notion that Verlander is running away with the award is just dead wrong, a symptom of writers who have been seduced by Verlander’s gaudy win total. But at the end of the day those 5 extra wins are really the only thing that drastically set Verlander apart from Sabathia, and since pitcher wins are meaningless, we can rightly say that the two are basically neck and neck.
I won’t fault anyone for voting for Verlander, but if the season ended today and I had a vote, I’d be casting it for C.C.