Putting current pitchers in a historical perspective is a slippery business. The game is not the same from decade to decade. We have tools like FIP and ERA+ to compare current pitchers to pitchers of the past and WAR comparisons from then and now. But it really doesn't do the current pitcher any justice to try to place them in a historical context. This point was considered this morning a day after watching Justin Verlander pitch against the Yankees in Game Three of the 2012 ALCS. Hall of Fame consideration really needs to stick with how a player compared to the players of his own generation. And Verlander is tracking in the right direction as he is the best pitcher in the game right now. With all that said, it is still fun to try and pit a current player against a player of the past.
According to baseball-reference.com, the 29 year old Justin Verlander's career thus far stacks up most closely with a 29 year old Mike Mussina. But the two were extremely different pitchers. While it seems that both got the job done in a wonderful way, Mussina was never a blow-you-away kind of pitcher. So, as the thought exercise continued, the internal question was: "Who does Verlander seem the most like in the past?"
Pedro Martinez came to mind as he had an assortment of pitches like Verlander and struck out a lot of batters. But Verlander pales in that comparison. Martinez started younger, but his first eight years stacked against Verlander's first eight years are not close. For example, Martinez averaged an ERA+ of 162 in his first seven full seasons. Verlander has a seven-year career ERA+ of 128.
So who then? The mental image went back to two pitchers (which is an advantage of being old): Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale. And the exercise in comparing the three was quite fun. Gibson was a year older than Verlander when he broke into the big leagues. Gibson was not allowed to start full time until his third season and Verlander became a full time starter in his second season. Comparing Verlander to Drysdale was a little harder because Drysdale started younger. So his first eight seasons were used for the comparison. Here is a few of the stats on how the three compare:
- rWAR: Verlander (34.2), Drysdale (32.2), Gibson (29.3)
- ERA+: Verlander (128), Drysdale (128), Gibson (124.5)
- Wins: Verlander (124), Drysdale (123), Gibson (112)
- WHIP: Verlander (1.173), Drysdale (1.183), Gibson (1.230)
- Strikeouts: Verlander (1454), Drysdale (1487), Gibson (1435)
- HR/9: Verlander (0.79), Drysdale (0.81), Gibson (0.71)
Those are pretty interesting comparisons. The funny thing is that we never know how a career will end up. Bob Gibson would go on to post the best years of his career after this time frame and would pitch until he was 39. Drysdale had already done his best work and would have five more great seasons before retiring after his Age 32 season.
Drysdale and particularly, Gibson, were terrific post season pitchers. And Verlander is starting to build a legacy there too. All three were big, powerful and, in some ways, menacing. All three were terrific and Verlander holds up very well against these two Hall of Fame pitchers.
Bottom line? Justin Verlander is something special that we should appreciate. They don't come along like him too often.