Justin Verlander Finds Another Gear

Justin Verlander had himself a night in Anaheim on Wednesday, throwing his first complete-game shutout since August 26, 2015 and becoming the 33rd pitcher to notch 2,500 strikeouts. What’s more, he did it in a game where the Astros’ sole possession of first place in the AL West was on the line. It’s just the latest chapter of the now 35-year-old righty’s rebirth, one that has returned him to the upper echelon of the game’s starters and positioned him for a run at the Hall of Fame. The pitcher famous for finding another gear with his fastball late in the game has done just that with his career.

Verlander collected his milestone strikeout against none other than Shohei Ohtani, who foul-tipped a 96 mph heater in the ninth inning:

That was one of seven strikeouts Verlander notched on the night, and yes, he was still Bringing It late. He threw his six fastest four-seamers of the night, and nine of his top 11, in the eighth or ninth innings, all 97.5 mph or above according to Brooks Baseball.

Three of his strikeouts came against Ohtani (the second silver sombrero of his brief MLB career), who while avoiding a strikeout in the fourth inning — and even getting the call on this 87 mph slider — nonetheless wound up with his ankles repurposed into a pretzel, with Verlander supplying the mustard:

Now that’s just nasty, but then Verlander has been nothing but nasty to hitters this year. He hasn’t allowed a single run in five of his 10 starts (of the other four, two were six innings, one was seven and one was eight) and has allowed two runs or fewer in eight straight and nine of 10. Through those 10 starts, he leads the majors in ERA (1.05) and is tied with teammate Gerrit Cole in WAR (2.7). Meanwhile, he’s third in the AL in FIP (2.20), K% (32.8%) and K-BB% (27.3 points). His 25 ERA- is 10 points lower than Pedro Martinez’s 35 in 2000, the lowest full-season mark since the start of the 20th century.

It wasn’t too long ago that Verlander’s days as an ace appeared to be finished. From the start of the 2014 season to the All-Star break in 2016 — a span that included his worst full-season ERA since 2008 (4.54 in 2014) and a triceps strain that limited him to 20 starts in 2015 — the six-time All-Star and former Cy Young and MVP winner posted a 4.08 ERA, 3.70 FIP, and 20.6% strikeout rate, respectable numbers but hardly elite. His performance in the first half of 2016 was very similar save for more strikeouts (4.07 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 25.1%), but he had a stellar second half of that year and nearly won his second Cy Young; his 14 first-place votes trumped winner Rick Porcello’s eight, but he lost nonetheless. His 2017 season was uneven, as well, with a 4.73 ERA, 4.29 FIP, and 21.0% K rate in the first half, and a 1.95 ERA, 3.37 FIP, and 31.7% K rate in the second. Amid that stellar run, of course, he was traded to the Astros on August 31 and posted a 1.06 ERA and 2.69 FIP over five September starts before helping the Astros win the World Series

Via his 15-game rolling averages — a sample size that exactly encompasses the Houston portion of his career — Verlander is stingier than he’s ever been in terms of ERA, and pretty close when it comes to FIP. He’s also striking out batters at a far higher rate than ever:

As Jeff Sullivan detailed last fall, Verlander’s rebound has had a lot to do with an increase in slider usage and decrease in the velocity of that pitch, thus facilitating more drop — a trend that predates the trade. Via Brooks Baseball, his increased slider usage has come at the expense of his curve and changeup:

While the trend hasn’t been uniform, Verlander’s whiff percentages on his four-seamer, slider, and curve have climbed considerably from where they were in 2014-15, and thus far, those on both his four-seamer and slider are up relative to last year:

In all, Verlander’s 13.4% whiff rate is a career high, topping his previous full-season best from 2016 (12.0%); he was at 10.7% last year. What’s more, when batters have put his pitches in play, they haven’t been able to do anything with them:

Contact Against Verlander, 2018
Pitch Type AB AVG SLG Avg EV wOBA xwOBA
Four-Seam 131 .168 .252 89.2 .206 .265
Slider 63 .111 .206 83.7 .202 .243
Curve 33 .152 .242 81.3 .166 .144
SOURCE: Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball

You might get better results swinging a wet newspaper at a Swedish meatball. For comparison, Verlander’s 2016-17 numbers on contact were still pretty remarkable:

Contact Against Verlander, 2016-17
Four-Seam 993 .211 .356 88.9 .294 .325
Change 143 .266 .483 88.2 .356 .343
Slider 503 .183 .334 84.7 .249 .246
Curve 294 .194 .299 86.1 .237 .255
SOURCE: Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball

I omitted the changeups from the first of those two tables because batters have only put seven into play (they’re hitless), but you can see why he more or less abandoned that pitch in favor of more effective ones.

Verlander isn’t likely to sustain this insane level of dominance over the course of a full season, but pitching the way he has, not just this year but for the past three, has jump-started his push for the Hall of Fame. Using Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, which is driven by actual runs allowed (with an adjustment for defense) instead of by FIP, his 2016 and 2017 seasons (7.2 and 6.5 WAR, respectively) rank as the third- and fourth-best of his career, and so they’ve boosted his seven-year peak score by 5.5 WAR, to 44.7. That’s still short of the average Hall of Famer (50.1), but he stands to close the gap further this year. He’s at 2.9 rWAR already, and anything above 4.3 (his seventh-best season, from 2013) will further improve his peak score.

Pulling up the table I updated last week for CC Sabathia, here’s how Verlander stacks up among his contemporaries:

Active and Recently Retired Pitchers
Name Yrs W ERA+ Career Peak JAWS
AVG HOF SP 73.4 50.1 61.8
Roy Halladay 1998-2013 203 131 64.3 50.6 57.5
Clayton Kershaw 2008-2018* 145 160 61.7 49.6 55.7
Zack Greinke 2004-2018* 175 123 62.3 46.3 54.3
Justin Verlander 2005-2018* 193 126 60.0 44.2 52.1
CC Sabathia 2001-2018* 239 118 61.2 39.4 50.3
Tim Hudson 1999-2015 222 120 58.2 38.3 48.3
Johan Santana 2000-2012 139 136 51.6 45.0 48.3
Mark Buehrle 2000-2015 214 117 59.3 35.9 47.6
Andy Pettitte 1995-2013 256 117 60.3 34.1 47.2
Cole Hamels 2006-2018* 149 124 53.9 37.6 45.7
Felix Hernandez 2005-2018* 165 123 52.1 38.6 45.4
Roy Oswalt 2001-2013 163 127 50.1 40.3 45.2
Max Scherzer 2008-2018* 148 129 47.5 41.0 44.3
* Active

Verlander has a ways to go as far as JAWS is concerned, but he does have some further low-hanging fruit when it comes to his peak score, in the form of a 4.5-WAR 2010 season as his sixth-best to date. Supposing that he finishes at 6.5 WAR this season and adds another five or so wins next year, that would take his line to 68.6/46.9/57.8, ahead of Halladay, whom I think is likely to be elected this winter. Meanwhile, he’s likely to blow past the 200-win mark this year and could reach 3,000 strikeouts — something only 16 pitchers have done, with Sabathia (2,874) next in line — in 2020, if he stays healthy.

I won’t rehash what I said in this space just a week ago about the eventuality of BBWAA voters adjusting to the “workload constraint era,” with its five-man rotations, pitch counts, times-through-the-order concerns, and de facto innings caps that will make both the win-based milestones and the WAR-based measures from past eras harder to reach, as it’s all in the Sabathia piece in concise form. He’s far from a lock now, but I do think that if Verlander can check off the 3,000-strikeout box while pitching like an All-Star for another season or two along the way, potentially with some Cy Young votes and postseason highlights thrown in, he’s going to be in very good shape when it comes to Cooperstown. And again, while I don’t think it’s fair to expect him to put up a dead-ball era ERA in this home-run-saturated era, I can’t wait to see where he takes this current run.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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Mick Dee
5 years ago

I like to think the best of people but you can color me skeptical here. History shows us that guys who revive their careers in their mid 30’s tend to do so with a bit of chemical assistance.

5 years ago
Reply to  Mick Dee

Not sure I see the incentive for Verlander, he’s already made a boatload of money.

Mick Dee
5 years ago
Reply to  burts_beads

So has Cano.

5 years ago
Reply to  Mick Dee

some say the chemicals are right on his fingertips /s

5 years ago
Reply to  LofSkrif

Some are idiots.

5 years ago
Reply to  Mick Dee

He’s been a freak all along. If there’s a drug that prevents a pitcher from having any arm injuries while throwing harder and longer than anyone else, well you’d think we’d have heard of it.

Mick Dee
5 years ago

I’m not saying PEDs are responsible for every attribute of his entire career. I’m not even accusing him of anything. However, I think a reasonable person should be least a little skeptical after everything that’s been uncovered over the past two decades.

5 years ago
Reply to  Mick Dee

Yeah that’s fair and unfortunate. I just feel like let the testing sort them out, for better or worse. Everything else is just talk.

5 years ago
Reply to  Mick Dee

Why even care then? also by bringing it up you are, essentially, accusing him. Since there have been sports people have always tried to get an edge/cheat. It’s not the last two decades it is all of human history. Come to terms with it or be perpetually disappointed. BUT WHO IS TO SAY THAT THE LOVE OF KATE UPTON DIDN’T RESURRECT HIM?

Carnegie and Ontario
5 years ago
Reply to  Mick Dee

PEDs? Its feasible and possibly even probable, this guy looked like he was on his way down just last year running out there with a fip over 4 but now the best pitcher in baseball….again. Kind of similar to Roger Clemens… I am biased as I firmly dislike Verlander (Indians fan). It probably has more to do with the pitching coach down there in Houston.

5 years ago

No his stuff was awesome last year too, just had iffy command, and the Tigers’ catchers are pure garbage at receiving. Even before the trade Verlander was rolling for almost two months.

5 years ago
Reply to  Mick Dee

JV has been very outspoken about those that have been caught including Cano. His stance has always been staunchly anti PEDs. That argues strongly against JV cheating because If he’s ever used he’d also be the biggest hypocrite in baseball.

5 years ago
Reply to  burrwick

Other than Braun, you mean.

5 years ago
Reply to  dl80

“Everybody makes mistakes. He’s my brother. We fight and bleed and sweat together on the baseball field.”
-Justin Verlander, on teammate, Johnny Peralta, PED suspension-