Sometimes you just have to sit back, enjoy the performance and admire the gift that is Justin Verlander‘s right arm. He’s 35 years old, on the wrong end of the timeline for most professional baseball players, and yet here he is, 6-2 with a 1.08 ERA through 11 starts, spinning not just dominant results, but some of the best we’ve ever seen at the start of a season.
Actually, Wednesday’s performance in a 4-1 win over the San Francisco Giantswas somewhat pedestrian, if you can call nine strikeouts and one run over six innings “pedestrian.” Pitching on six days of rest, Verlander said, “I was probably a little rusty. But overall was able to execute pitches when I needed to against a really good lineup that makes you work hard.”
ESPN Stats & Info
Justin Verlander has completed at least 6 IP and allowed 2 R or fewer in each of his last 9 appearances, the longest such streak by an Astros pitcher since Mike Scott’s franchise-record 14 straight in 1986.
Scott won the National League Cy Young Award that season.
He has allowed 11 runs in 11 starts and has surrendered no runs or one run in eight of those outings. Realistically, he could be 11-0 with better run support, but the Houston Astros have been shut out twice when he has started and been held to one run two other times. (Verlander picked up a no-decision when he struck out 14 in eight scoreless innings against the New York Yankees.)
His rankings among MLB starters:
• First in ERA (1.08)
• First in WAR (Chris Sale led 2.9 to 2.8 entering Wednesday, but Verlander will pass him)
From that list, two starts stand out: Jimenez in 2010 with the Rockies and Greinke in 2009 with the Royals. That was actually just 10 starts for Jimenez; in his 11th he spun a shutout, so his season totals through 11 starts were 10-1 with a 0.78 ERA. He had pitched 80⅓ innings — six more than Verlander — and allowed just one home run. Only four of the 11 starts had come in Coors Field, but that’s four more than Verlander has made there.
That would be the low mark in ERA for Jimenez, although he’d run his record to 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA at the All-Star break and started the All-Star Game. Maybe the pitch counts hurt him — he had four 120-plus pitch outings in those first 11 starts and his command, never a fine point of his game, deteriorated a bit after that. My editor, a diehard Rockies fan, says manager Jim Tracy also had a tendency to leave him in one inning too long. He still ended up with the best season ever by a Rockies starter: 19-8, 2.88 ERA, 7.5 WAR, third in the Cy Young voting.
Greinke’s hot start landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but that 1.10 ERA soon rose after a seven-run game in his 12th start and a six-run game two starts later. He settled back into a nice groove after that, and won the AL Cy Young Award, going 16-8, 2.16 for a bad Royals team. His 10.4 WAR via Baseball-Reference is still the highest since Randy Johnson’s 10.7 in 2002.
Looking down the road, we can search on Baseball-Reference for best first-half ERAs. Here they are since 1933, when the All-Star Game debuted:
1. Bob Gibson, Cardinals, 1968: 1.05
2. Justin Verlander, Astros, 2018: 1.08
3. Bob Knepper, Astros, 1981: 1.15
4. Luis Tiant, Indians, 1968: 1.24
5. Red Munger, Cardinals, 1944: 1.34
6. Don Drysdale, Dodgers, 1968: 1.37
7. Nolan Ryan, Astros, 1981: 1.37
8. Hal Newhouser, Tigers, 1943: 1.38
9. Zack Greinke, Dodgers, 2015: 1.39
10. Vida Blue, A’s, 1971: 1.42
To recap that top 10: We have three from the infamous pitchers year of 1968; two from World War II when there was a talent shortage; two teammates from the 1981 strike season in one of the best pitcher’s parks ever (each had made just 11 starts); and then Verlander, another Greinke season and Blue.
That Blue season is one of my favorites of all time. He was in his first full season in the majors and didn’t turn 22 until July. The All-Star break came late that year and he’d thrown a crazy 184 innings in 22 starts — more than eight innings per start! He went on to win Cy Young and MVP honors, finishing with a 1.82 ERA, 312 innings and eight shutouts, and while he had a long career, he never came close to replicating that kind of dominance.
Can Verlander keep it going? Well, going back to last July 30 — about the time he says he made a mechanical tweak — he has made 28 starts including the postseason and is 20-4 with a 1.54 ERA and 230 strikeouts in 193⅓ innings. This stretch isn’t just an 11-start hot streak.
I’ve seen skepticism on the ol’ interwebs about Verlander’s performance, mostly concerning his increased fastball velocity the past couple of seasons compared to 2013-15 (he’s averaging 94.8 mph this year). Trevor Bauer may point to some special substance helping him with his grip.
Two things there: (1) This guy has had one DL stint in his career, for biceps tendinitis in 2015, the only season he hasn’t started at least 30 games; (2) Remember that Verlander had core muscle surgery in January 2014 and he has said it really took a couple of seasons to fully recover from that. Plus, from 2009 to 2012, he threw more than 1,000 innings in four seasons (including the postseason). He’s also averaging just 100 pitches per start this year compared to 116 back in his Cy Young/MVP season in 2011, so he can air it out a little more.
This is important as well: It’s not unusual for great pitchers to do some of their best work at age 35. Steve Carlton had one of his best seasons in 1980, winning the Cy Young Award and leading the league in wins, innings and strikeouts. Randy Johnson won his first of four straight Cy Youngs with the Diamondbacks at age 35. Curt Schilling went 23-7 and struck out 316 batters. Roger Clemens (cough, cough) led the AL in ERA and won a Cy Young Award. Warren Spahn won 20 games — and did so the next five seasons as well. Cy Young, Lefty Grove, Gaylord Perry, Jim Bunning, Kevin Brown, Greg Maddux, Nolan Ryan … the list goes on and on.
Maybe that’s the final takeaway from Verlander’s start: He has been a great pitcher, he has his health, he has knowledge and experience, and he has better analytics at his disposal than he probably had with the Tigers. (Indeed, as our old friend Mark Simon pointed out at The Athletic, Verlander is getting more called strikes with his fastball this year because he’s throwing it lower in the zone.)
It’s an artist doing his best work. Appreciate the talent.