Justin Verlander Injury Hurts Astros’ Already Thin Rotation

Through one start, the 2020 version of Justin Verlander somewhat resembled the Verlander of a year ago. He threw six innings of seven strikeout, one walk, three hits ball, allowing two solo home runs, a stat line not too dissimilar from his Cy Young 2019 season. Sadly, a repeat of that fantastic campaign, even in abbreviated form, looks to be very unlikely as on Sunday, manager Dusty Baker announced Verlander would be shut down from throwing for two weeks with a forearm strain. When the season is only two months long, a two-week shutdown likely means half a season lost, potentially more.

Verlander has been one of the more durable starters in the game. Since the start of the 2017 season, he has averaged 38 starts and 244 innings when including postseason. Last season, it was 258.1 innings and 40 starts, as the Astros made it to the seventh game of the World Series for the second time in three years. That’s a lot of innings for any pitcher to throw, and for the 37-year-old Verlander, it might be catching up to him. This isn’t even the first time Verlander has been shut down this year. Back in March, Jay Jaffe wrote about a lat strain that caused the Astros to press pause on his season:

The results of the MRI showed what general manager James Click called “a mild lat strain”; Click portrayed the news as “on the positive side.” Even so, Verlander has been shut down, with no timetable at the moment, and the fear is that he could be in for a repeat of 2015. Through the first 10 seasons of his major league career, he had never landed on the disabled list, but triceps cramping, followed by a triceps strain as he ramped up his activity level, kept him out of action until June 13 of that year. Reviewing reports of his problems that spring, it appears that the Tigers and the pitcher were slow to take his initial discomfort seriously, and it was subsequently noted that Verlander also suffered a lat strain at some point during rehab, which prolonged his absence. In all, he made just 20 starts totaling 133.1 innings in 2015, the only time in 14 full seasons that he hasn’t gone to the post at least 32 times.

Verlander elected to have groin surgery when it became clear that baseball’s layoff would be a long one. The delayed start to the season gave him time to be ready to pitch on Friday, and while the results were solid, even with just 73 pitches, his fastball wasn’t as hot as normal:

Verlander did approach 97 mph on a handful of pitches, but his velocity dipped as the game went on. On the last pitch of the game, he ended up at around 95 mph, which is closer to average for him. Two weeks of rest will hopefully help Verlander’s arm, but we are probably looking at another two weeks beyond that before he’s ready to pitch in another game. That could mean just a month of Verlander for the Astros, potentially out of the bullpen, and if his arm doesn’t respond well to rest, we might be looking at a lost 2020 season for the future Hall of Famer.

Josh James is scheduled to pitch for the Astros tonight, with Framber Valdez set to go tomorrow. Wednesday’s starter is currently TBD. Jose Urquidy remains on the Injured List, meaning the options would seemingly be a bullpen game or Forrest Whitley. Whitley is still one of the better pitching prospects in baseball (he ranked 15th on Eric Longenhagen’s preseason top 100), and he impressed the club during camp after a rough 2019 season. The Astros could decide to delay calling Whitley up in order to manipulate his service time, though the need for a starter is clear enough and Whitley so obviously the most logical choice that that decision could result in a grievance.

As for what Verlander’s absence means for the Astros the rest of the season, the loss has already had ramifications for their playoff and World Series odds. Entering Sunday’s game, the Astros had a 95.5% chance of making the playoffs and 13.7% odds of winning the World Series. After their loss to Mariners, their playoff odds dropped three percentage points, to 92.5%, and their chances of winning the World Series took a significant dip down to 11.7%. While some of the change could be attributed to their loss on Sunday, the Dodgers recently put Clayton Kershaw on the IL and also lost Sunday and only saw their playoff odds fall by half as much; their World Series odds were unchanged.

Entering the season, Verlander was projected as the fifth-best pitcher in baseball, with 1.7 WAR. So far, we’ve only removed about half of that value from our rest-of-season projections. The Astros still have a good staff, currently ranked seventh in our Depth Charts with the following playing time projections:

Astros Starting Pitching Projections
Name IP ERA FIP WAR
Zack Greinke 71 4.05 4.16 1.1
Lance McCullers Jr. 56 3.85 3.84 1.1
Joshua James 50 4.03 4.09 0.9
Framber Valdez 46 4.00 4.28 0.7
Jose Urquidy 36 4.41 4.56 0.5
Justin Verlander 29 3.32 3.43 0.7
Forrest Whitley 23 5.00 5.20 0.1
Austin Pruitt 17 4.81 4.73 0.2
Cristian Javier 7 4.90 5.16 0
Brandon Bailey 3 5.20 5.22 0
Total 337 4.11 4.22 5.3

With Urquidy and Verlander’s playing time very much in doubt, it wouldn’t take much more bad news for the Astros’ rotation to tumble into the middle or even the bottom half of the league. A lot could ride on Whitley’s development. His projection is weak due to his struggles a year ago. If the step forward he seemed to take in the spring and summer holds, he could keep Houston among the 10 best rotations in baseball. If he struggles, the rotation looks a lot less solid and even more full of question marks. The Astros still have the best set of position players in the game and should be able to overcome a middling pitching staff, but without Verlander, they no longer looks quite like the world-beaters they did on Opening Day. And if he doesn’t come back strong, repeating as American League champs could prove very difficult.

We hoped you liked reading Justin Verlander Injury Hurts Astros’ Already Thin Rotation by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Shirtless George Brett
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Shirtless George Brett

I appreciate the analysis but I suspect it’s all moot. The season isn’t making it past August anyway. Hell, at this rate it might not make it past July.

emh1969
Member
emh1969

I suppose if they only cancel the Marlins season, no one will actually notice…

fjtorres
Member
fjtorres

The Phillies noticed.
In a short season (likely to go shorter) every game matters.

emh1969
Member
emh1969

Ummm…it was a joke about how the Marlins have no fans…

fjtorres
Member
fjtorres

Neither did the Generals but they served a purpose. 😉

baubo
Member
baubo

The issue at least to me isnt so much that the Marlins had a team wide outbreak but that there doesnt seem to be protocol dealing with it. Theres no specific rule agreed by both sides to do in such a case. That they somehow just prayed something like this wouldn’t happen is the damning issue.

D-Wiz
Member
Member
D-Wiz

Couldn’t agree more. Something like this was almost bound to happen (which calls into question whether they should have attempted a season at all, but…), so the fact that MLB is essentially caught with their pants down now that it is happening is baffling (or at least, it would be if not for the incompetence Manfred et al. have repeatedly showed throughout this whole process).

Joser
Member
Joser

I agree. The report that MLB was having an “emergency conference” to talk about it suggests they got this far without any real contingency planning whatsoever. Not that that is at all inconsistent with how MLB seems to do everything, and I confess I didn’t track down and read their multi-hundred page document detailing their restart plans, but it’s a bad look.

As Sean Doolittle said, “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society.” And neither this society, nor Major League Baseball, have earned it.

carter
Member
Member
carter

Sure there is a protocol. Sign more players. I’m sure Manny would come play.

Shirtless George Brett
Member
Shirtless George Brett

What makes it even more baffling/disgraceful is that this very thing was anticipated by pretty much everyone before the season even restarted. Even just here on fangraphs you had multiple comments saying “what happens when a whole team gets sick?” for weeks.

No one had a good answer. Seems like MLB didn’t either. What a massive fuckup on baseball’s and the PA’s part.

carter
Member
Member
carter

Are you sure they didn’t know this was going to happen and went on anyways? To me it sort of seems like they knew this was going to happen, and didn’t care.

bohknowsbmore
Member
bohknowsbmore

FWIW, the owners were the ones supposedly prepared to cancel the season. A position for which they were vilified here.

Salty
Member
Member
Salty

The owners were prepared to cancel the season over a money dispute, not over concerns of players’ health.

SucramRenrut
Member
Member
SucramRenrut

Well, they have a full team left on the ’60 man roster’. Pretty clear that was the best they came up with in response to a situation like this. We may get to see what playing out the strike shortened season with scabs would have looked like (for at least another week or two at least).

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

To be fair, the Marlins are still fully capable of fielding a team even with 11 players down. Meanwhile, MLB is proceeding as could be expected with proper testing and quarantine measures underway. I’m not sure what else you expect them to be able to do at the moment.

The Duke
Member
The Duke

There’s a lot of happiness here about “being proven right “ about covid. Life must go on. They will work their way through this. The obvious fall back is to allow the marlins to draft XX players off the other rosters temporarily If they need extra players.

I’m not sure I understand the logic that we should fold up our cards – I’m loving having baseball back and if they have to do some drastic things to keep it running, so be it

One thing they need to sort right now is an alternate site in each city that they can decamp to if they need to fumigate a locker room. With no fans, any site will do