Two years ago, I spent the barren months of January through March attempting to break down the AL Central by position. Some of it looked foolish, some of it didn't. It gave me something to do because Kansas is a milder, but still awful place in the winter. Last year I enjoyed those months, so I skipped a repeat performance. This has been a pretty long-winded way of saying I might be going back to that well once more.
But not quite yet. I started thinking about each team in the division's ace and how they stack up to one another. Kevin Correia is listed as the Twins number one starter on their team website. Weep for Minnesota. The next step up is obviously Justin Masterson out in Cleveland, but he's more of a solid 2/3 guy in his best years. In a secondary tier to himself is James Shields. He's much better than the two below him, but his ceiling seems to be the 4-5 WAR range. It's good and helpful, but not elite. Not what the pair mentioned in the title are capable of.
Justin Verlander is one of the top pitchers in the American League, arguably even the best. Other than an off 2008, he's been an above average pitcher since his rookie year back in 2006 and has become truly elite over the past two seasons. He went from averaging 3.7 bWAR from 2006-2010 to averaging 8.0 bWAR in 2011-2012. How did that happen? In 2011, we can at least point to a ridiculously low .236 BABIP and an 80.3 LOB% that's a bit higher than anything he'd pulled off since 2006. But those numbers more or less corrected themselves last summer and he still put up essentially the same season. Whatever changed for him, he's probably this new version more than the old one, at least for the next season or two.
The fun begins when you start comparing what Chris Sale did last year in his first full season as a starting pitcher to what Verlander accomplished in the early years of his career. Over 192 innings, Sale was worth 5.7 bWAR which was good for 4th in the AL in bWAR for pitchers. Verlander did not crack the top 5 until 2011 when he finished first, a feat he repeated in 2012. In fact, Verlander didn't even have close to as good of a season as Sale just had until 2009 when he was worth 5.2 bWAR as a 26-year-old over 240 innings. Look at the one more time. 0.5 fewer bWAR in 48 more innings while being three years older.
It's risky pinning your hopes and dreams on pitchers, especially one that looks and throws like Chris Sale. But if he doesn't get injured, it's looking like more of a question of when will he surpass Verlander as opposed to if. And if I had to make a prediction, I'd say 2014 is the year the crown gets passed down.