It’s been a weird season thus far for Justin Verlander. On the one hand, the 36-year-old righty has enjoyed dominant stretches and generally pitched well enough to put himself in the conversation for another All-Star appearance (perhaps even a start) and that elusive second Cy Young Award, all while advancing his case for eventual election to the Hall of Fame. On the other hand, he’s struggling to keep the ball in the park like never before — but then, that describes most pitchers in a year of record-setting home run rates. The combination has created some very unusual, extreme statistics
On Sunday, Verlander threw seven strong innings against the Yankees in the Bronx, allowing just four hits, two walks, and three runs while striking out nine. The runs all came via a three-run homer by DJ LeMahieu, but the blast was of trivial importance, hit at a time when the Astros owned a commanding 9-0 lead. The trivia was shared by both teams. It was the 26th straight game in which the Yankees homered, a franchise record and one short of the major league record, held by the 2002 Rangers. It was also the first time since April 15, 2017 — back when he was still a Tiger — that Verlander had surrendered a three-run homer.
I’ll get back to the home runs momentarily. The Astros’ 9-4 win gave Verlander his 10th victory of the season and the 214th of his career; he’s second among active pitchers behind only CC Sabathia, who claimed his 250th win last week. His 142 strikeouts trail only teammate Gerrit Cole for the league lead, while his 2.67 ERA is good for fourth. However, because he’s served up 21 homers in 114.2 innings — a career-high 1.65 per nine — his FIP is a less-impressive 3.77, and his ERA-FIP differential of -1.10 ranks third in the AL. Depending upon one’s choice of pitching value metrics, he either looks like a Cy hopeful (second in bWAR at 3.8) or just a solid All-Star candidate (tied for ninth in fWAR at 2.5).
Verlander has become an increasingly fly-ball-oriented pitcher at a time when home run rates are at their highest sustained levels ever. He hasn’t had a ground-ball rate above 40%, or a ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio of 1.0 or higher, since 2012; he’s been below 35% in the former category and below 0.8 in the latter in each of the past five seasons, with rates of 34.7% and 0.73 this year. Meanwhile, home runs per team per game are at an all-time high (1.36), and they’re certain to remain above 1.1 for an unprecedented fourth straight year, surpassing the 1999-2001 surge in that department.
Both Verlander’s raw home run rate and 16.9% HR/FB rate are well beyond his previous career highs (1.19 per nine and 11.5%, respectively); he owns the league’s eighth-highest mark in the former (again, 1.65 per nine) and is 11th in the latter. Yet even with those gaudy rankings, he’s the majors’ only ERA qualifier who is allowing at least 1.2 homers per nine while maintaining an ERA below 3.00 (the Rays’ Yonny Chirinos is right at 3.00 despite 1.45 HR/9). Verlander has been able to do that because he’s excelled at keeping runners off base. Some of that — his MLB-low .175 BABIP, 51 points ahead of the second-ranked Mike Fiers — is thanks in part to his defense, though his .262 xwOBA is in the 91st percentile. Some of it owes to a 5.1% walk rate, the second-lowest of his career, and some of it owes to sequencing. Seventeen of the 21 homers he’s allowed have been solo homers, with a trio of two-run shots accounting for the other ones besides LeMahieu’s big blast (in case you were wondering, he hasn’t served up a grand slam since April 11, 2010). He’s allowed a total of 35 runs all season, and 26 of them have come via dingers. His 74.3% rate is the highest in the majors:
Coincidentally, Happ was Verlander’s opposite on Sunday. He allowed a leadoff homer to Jose Altuve, a grand slam to Tyler White, and a two-run homer to Yordan Alvarez to account for seven of his eight runs allowed in four innings, goosing his RHR% by a few points. He’s not having a particularly good season (5.23 ERA, 5.47 FIP), but by and large, the above group of pitchers is a good one, even if some of them aren’t having typically strong campaigns; seven of them have both their ERA and FIP below 4.00, and another four have both below the MLB average of 4.46. They generally do a solid job of limiting the damage when they’re giving up home runs.
Here’s the other end of the leaderboard:
|Marcus Stroman||Blue Jays||100.2||43||9||12||27.9%|
That’s no group of slouches either. Seven of them have both an ERA and FIP below 4.00, and another six have both marks below 4.45. Lynn, the AL WAR leader (3.3), has yet to allow a home run with a runner on base.
While I wish I could place Verlander’s rate in historical perspective, it turns out that there’s no publicly available tool to do so with any reasonable efficiency. Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, MLB — none of those sites offers breakdowns of home runs hit with zero, one, two, or three men on base in a way that can be used to compare pitchers across multiple seasons; as it was, it took me an hour to figure out how to use my limited VLOOKUP skillz to cobble together 2019 data from B-Ref’s Event Finder and Play Index. That said, we can get a vague sense of just how unusual Verlander’s season is simply by using home runs per run allowed, even if assuming that every home run allowed is a solo homer does seem a stretch. Here’s a leaderboard (h/t Craig Edwards) that ostensibly covers all seasons back to 1871, though not a single pre-integration performance comes close to cracking the upper reaches:
|Billy Pierce||White Sox||1958||83||33||0.398|
Just five of the top 25 seasons occurred before the turn of the millennium, while five of them are from this year, with three from last year and another six from 2015-17. This period, with a combination of high home run rates and low batting averages, has made for favorable conditions in this department. For what it’s worth, among the other seasons that crack the top 10 in the above table, the highest in terms of RHR% is Fiers at 61.9%, followed by Kershaw (61.2%), Fernandez (57.6%), 2018-model Verlander (55.6%), Ortiz (53.6%), Schilling (53.5%), and Candelaria (53.1%). All of which is to say that it seems pretty rare to post an RHR% above 60%, though I’ll await the day when I have greater processing power at my disposal to confirm that.
In addition to putting a pin in that search, there’s one other ratio to keep an eye on with respect to Verlander’s season. He entered Sunday with 20 walks and homers allowed apiece, but in walking two and serving up just one gopher ball, he fell off a comparatively short list of ERA qualifiers with at least as many home runs allowed as walks:
|La Marr Hoyt||Padres||1985||20||20||1.00|
|David Wells||Red Sox||2005||21||21||1.00|
|Curt Schilling||Red Sox||2006||28||28||1.00|
Those are some guys who could pound the ol’ strike zone, which generally kept them out of trouble even if they couldn’t always keep the ball in the yard. The list goes all the way back to the 19th century (Bond with the 1874 Brooklyn Atlantics of the National Association, Fisher with the 1876 Reds in the National League’s inaugural season) but also includes two other pitchers from this season who may pull through even if Verlander doesn’t. It’s lousy with Twins (six of them, including the great Radke and the not-so-great Silva), and features Wells four times in three different uniforms.
Verlander’s season has been strange but largely effective, continuing the momentum that he’s built since being dealt to Houston in late 2017. With 200 wins further in the rear-view mirror, 3,000 strikeouts approaching (he’s at 2,848), and his JAWS at 56.5 — 6.5 points higher than last year, and now just 6.0 shy of the starting pitcher standard — he may have already cemented his berth in Cooperstown, particularly given that he’s signed for another 2 1/2 seasons. Still, it’s been a weird year, and it will be very interesting to see where the numbers I’ve highlighted here finally land.
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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.