Could We See Verlander Join an Elite Club Before Years’ End?

By Louis Addeo-Weiss

If you’ve kept a keen eye on baseball over the past half-decade, you’ll know that Justin Verlander is in the midst of a career resurgence. 

After a three-year period (2013-15) where many around baseball were wondering what was wrong with the former Cy Young Award winner, as the right-hander was experiencing some loss in velocity (avg. fastball velocity in 2014 a career low 93.3), 2016 saw Verlander reclaim his place as one of baseball’s true aces.

Finishing second in Cy Young voting that year, losing controversially to former teammate and now Boston Red Sock Rick Porcello, Verlander went 16-9 with a league leading 254 strikeouts over 227.2 innings pitched, a 140 ERA+, and 7.2 WAR (Porcello amassed just 4.8 in comparison). His average fastball velocity, then 94.3, was a full mile faster than his aforementioned 2014 total. 

Simply put, Justin Verlander was back.

Since the start of 2016, Verlander is 62-30 with a 2.92 ERA, 147 ERA+. 3.43 FIP, and an even more impressive 969 strikeouts across just 805 innings, as well as 24.9 WAR.

Take his ERA+ over that span into account, that 147 total is the same as Jacob DeGrom, and better than new teammate Zack Greinke (130), another pitcher in the midst of a hall of fame career. 

Verlander’s 24.9 WAR since 2016 is higher than Greinke (16.1), Clayton Kershaw (16.8), Chris Sale (19.5), and DeGrom (21), with former teammate and current Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer (27.5) amassing more pWAR (pitching WAR) during this span of time.

But in the midst of all of the modern metrics that truly reflect how great Verlander’s resurgence has been, it is one of baseball’s more traditional statistics, strikeouts, that has everyone on their seats when watching the right-hander at this stage of his career.

In his most recent start, August 4th against the directionless Seattle Mariners, Verlander allowed just one run over 6+ innings, striking out 10 and bringing his career strikeout total to 2,912, 88 strikeouts shy of the elusive 3,000 strikeout club.

With 24 starts already under his belt in 2019, and with expectations that he should make another 9-10 starts, could we possibly see Verlander become just the 18th man to amass 3,000 strikeouts?

Through those 24 starts, of which Verlander has pitched a league leading 157.2 innings, the right-hander has tallied 206 strikeouts, second in the American League to teammate Gerrit Cole, who leads the sport with 226 punchouts.

Averaging about 6.6 innings pitched per start, Verlander has also averaged 11.8 SO/9, good enough for fourth in the AL, trailing only the Tigers Matthew Boyd (12.7), the aforementioned Cole (12.9), and the puzzling 2019 version of Chris Sale, whose 13.1 SO/9 is tops across the sport.

Delving more into the averages, Verlander has averaged about 8.6 strikeouts per start, so with these 9-10 outings left for him this regular season, it isn’t too far-fetched to think he may join the 3,000 strikeout club before the postseason begins.

When looking at Verlander over the course of his career, we find a relative level of consistency synonymous with an ace.

While the notion surrounding Chris Sale’s late season struggles has been beaten like a dead horse, not much conversation exists around how Verlander tends to retain high-levels of performance even as we enter August and September.

Throughout the course of his career, which began in 2005, the regular season version of Justin Verlander has faced 3,916 hitters in August-October, with 3,604 of those qualifying as official at-bats. 

How did hitters fare against the 2011 AL MVP? How about a .237 opponents average, which is in line with his career mark of .229 and 3.28 ERA, again in line with his career ERA of 3.35.

But the discussion here centers on strikeouts, so let’s look at how Verlander’s SO/9 numbers age over the course of the season.

For his career, Verlander has averaged 9 SO/9, or simply one strikeout per inning, but when looking at his late-season numbers, we find that his strikeout numbers actually increase as he pitches more, averaging 9.5 SO/9 in August and September.

Now, considering all of this and previously noting that the right-hander is one pace to make between 9-10 more starts, let’s look at his first nine starts of 2019.

Pitching to a 2.51 ERA over that stretch, Verlander opened the season with 68 strikeouts in 57.1 innings pitched, with a SO/9 of 10.9, well above his already mentioned career mark of 9.0.

But as has already been stated, Verlander’s strikeout numbers tend to progressively increase as the season enters August, and given these months come post-trade deadline, teams out of contention may look to give other players opportunities to earn playing time moving forward, and facing Verlander won’t be an easy task as an introduction to the big leagues.

And while the numbers should suggest that Verlander could reach 3,000 before season’s end, it is imperative to mention that Astros thinking in regards to the postseason.

With a 75-40 record, the club sits comfortably in first place in their respective AL West, holding a 9 game lead over the Oakland Athletics, and with that said, given their enormous lead in the standings, manager A.J. Hinch may be inclined to rest some of his players in hopes of keeping them ready for October.

The other side of this is Verlander’s workhorse mentality, as he is one of the few remaining pitchers a club can count on to make at least 30 starts and total 200 innings, so it may be difficult for Hinch to take the ball out of his hand.

Were he to continue pitching at a regular rate though, his last ten starts serve as a good argument on behalf of his case of ending the year at or over 3,000 strikeouts.

Over his last 64 innings pitched (his last ten starts), Verlander has totalled 96 strikeouts, good enough for 13.5 SO/9. Were he to keep pitching at this rate, and who’s to say he won’t given his late season track record, he’ll easily become the 18th member of the 3,000 strikeout club.

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