The extraordinary Justin Verlander is 39…and baseball’s greatest pitcher

OWhen Justin Verlander fielded José Ramírez to complete the sixth inning of last week’s game between the Houston Astros and the Cleveland Guardians, the veteran right-hander left the field after pitching six blank innings. A barely broken stride, or a smile, it was yet another stellar outing on the mound.

Thursday’s win wasn’t just one more game. It gave Verlander his 15th win of the season and lowered his ERA to 1.73, the two best in the majors. For a 39-year-old who has played just one game in the previous two seasons – due to an arm injury and then Tommy John surgery to repair the damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow – it was another reminder of just how special a Verlander pitcher is, and just how historic he is putting together a season.

As the ace of a pitching staff that leads the AL in several major categories, including ERA, WHIP and opponents’ batting average, Verlander is a big reason the Astros battle with the New York Yankees for the AL’s best record. To show just how dominant he’s been, Verlander is the favorite to win his third American League Cy Young Award, and is also the runaway leader according to ESPN’s Cy Young Predictor.

Having won the award in 2011 and 2019, Verlander could join a slate of just 10 others to win at least three Cy Young Awards in MLB history. And at 39, he would be part of an even smaller list to win the award at such an advanced age.

What’s even more remarkable is the youth of the three closest pitchers to take the award away from him this year, if you can even call them close. Dylan Cease, 26, of the Chicago White Sox, Alek Manoah, 24, of Toronto, and Shane McClanahan, 25, of Tampa have fewer than 175 starts between them, compared to 473 for Verlander in 17 seasons. When Verlander won his first Cy Young in 2011 and his first MVP in the same season, Cease, Manoah and McClanahan were still in high school.

Regardless of the awards and his competition, Verlander could actually improve. If the 2022 season ended today, he would have career bests in ERA and win-loss percentage, tied for best walks in nine innings, and his second-best WHIP and opponents’ batting average, among his seasons where he pitched more than 35 innings. . And if Verlander continues at that pace for the 10 scheduled regular season starts remaining, he’ll eclipse 20 wins for just the third time in his career. The other two times to come in his two Cy Young seasons to date.

How does Verlander still put up sparkling numbers despite over 3,000 innings in his career? Although he’s known for his punching power – Verlander has averaged more than one strikeout per inning in his career to date – it’s his control and ability to induce weak contact from batters that were the most effective. Verlander’s 1.6 walks per nine innings is fourth-best in major tournaments, and he’s used his fastball half the time – down from around 60% in recent years – to allow his slider and curveball to force his opponents to generate power themselves.

Use of Justin Verlander’s pitch

As good as Verlander was until injuries threatened to end his career – he went 16-9 with a 2.52 ERA in 2018, and 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA in 2019 — The Astros were understandably cautious about committing too much of their payroll to him, having paid the veteran $66 million over the past two seasons to essentially recover from injury.

But after Thursday’s gem took Verlander to 130 innings pitched, a player option for next season was triggered, meaning the Astros will have their ace back in 2023 for a bargain price, by league standards. MLB, $25 million.

Barring a major injury, we could well be back here in a year, marveling at even more of Verlander’s historic exploits at 40. So far, the Virginia native has completely destroyed his 39-year-old compatriots. Of the 75 pitchers in MLB history to pitch at least 130 innings during their 39-year-old season, Verlander is in a different league of his own.

No other pitcher has an ERA of less than two years at the same age, although Verlander has so far thrown less than half of the 268.1 innings Eddie Plank hit in 1915, which is the closest with an MPM of 2.08. In the 21st century, a time when pitch and inning counts are more strictly enforced and enforced, his future Hall of Famer Adam Wainwright of the St Louis Cardinals is the closest, who implemented an MPM of 3.05 in 206.1 innings last season, a spectacular campaign in its own right. If not for Verlander’s stunning numbers, it might just be Wainwright, who is having another great season at 40, that the baseball community would have loved.

Best seasons at 39

If Verlander does indeed win his third Cy Young Award, his 240 career wins, his MVP season in 2011 (which also included a triple crown) and his World Series ring in 2017, mean he will definitely rank among the best pitchers in all the time. adorn a baseball field. But until he hangs up his cleats, and it might be a few more years before he does, the baseball world will have to invent new superlatives to describe how extraordinary Justin Verlander is.

The extraordinary Justin Verlander is 39…and baseball’s greatest pitcher

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