After the Padres selected hometown high-schooler Matt Bush first overall in 2004, the Tigers pounced on the opportunity to snag Verlander with the No. 2 pick. The former Old Dominion Monarch didn’t spend much time in the minor leagues, needing only 118 2/3 innings of polish before getting the call to the Big Show. What happened after that? Oh, nothing special, just a Rookie of the Year, two no-hitters, four American League strikeout crowns, six All Star appearances, a Cy Young award, an American League MVP award, and a supermodel in a pear tree.
Since 2006, Verlander’s first full season in the big leagues, the Virginian has thrown over 100 innings more than his next highest counterpart (Felix Hernandez). He has fanned just over 2,400 batters in 2,533 2/3 innings while maintaining an ERA under 3.50. His 188 wins are 20 better than CC Sabathia, who ranks second in the category, and he is one of only 24 pitchers to ever win the MVP award. We could spend the afternoon listing Verlander’s accolades, but you’ve got stuff to do, so let’s just say the 34-year-old has been about as good at pitching as A.J. Styles has been at wresting, or at least as good as I am at forced WWE metaphors. A two-year stretch, spanning from 2014-2015, saw Verlander struggle with injuries, leading to diminished velocity and time on the disabled list for the first time in his career. As a hurler approaching his mid-30s, there were questions as to whether Verlander was entering the steady decline of his career. Those questions were put to rest in 2016, when Verlander tossed nearly 230 innings, while striking out over 10 batters per nine innings, and picking up another tick on his fastball.
With the clock ready to strike midnight (or more accurately, 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time) on Aug. 31, the longtime Tiger was shipped to Houston at the waiver trade deadline, marking the first time in his 11-year career the right-hander would don a uniform without the classic “D” logo.
2017: What Went Wrong?
To say Verlander had a slow start to the 2017 season would be akin to saying Theon Greyjoy is probably the worst character on Game of Thrones. It’s a bit of an understatement. In his first 19 outings, Verlander averaged fewer than six innings per start, with a 4.66 ERA. He was also a little too charitable, issuing almost 4.5 free passes per nine innings. Some of his ineffectiveness could be blamed on a groin injury that slowed the righty down in June, but Verlander didn’t miss any time. It’s more likely that he was simply plagued with slightly lesser stuff. Hitters were making higher-than-average contact on pitches in the zone, and Verlander wasn’t missing many bats with his secondary pitches, getting whiffs less than 13 percent of the time with his vaunted slider. With the Tigers floundering, things were looking bleak for the franchise cornerstone and ace.
2017: What Went Right?
In mid-July Verlander started relying on his fastball a bit more, which had begun to feature the Kevin McCallister pizza order: extra cheese. With the extra velocity, Verlander was able to miss a few more bats, posting a filthy 1.88 ERA in his last 14 starts, striking out nearly 11 batters per nine innings in the process. In addition to the extra oomph on his heater, his prodigious slider once again came alive, getting whiffs nearly 25 percent of the time. He also managed to scale way back in the walks department, giving up a stingy 18 walks in 96 innings. Walking fewer dudes and striking everyone out is typically a winning strategy for a pitcher.
After Verlander’s voyage south to Houston, he leveled up. In his Astros debut, he stymied the Mariners, giving up one run in six innings while striking out seven. In 34 September innings, he dominated the competition, striking out 43 batters to only five walks with an absurd 1.06 ERA. It hasn’t been much different in October. In four starts for the American League champs, Verlander has punched out 24 batters in 24 2/3 innings, with a 1.46 ERA and a shiny ALCS MVP trophy to boot.
2018 and the Great Beyond
As colleague George Bissell pointed out yesterday with this nifty table, it’s becoming increasingly rare for starters to log 200 innings in a season.
Innings Pitched by Starters, 2008-2017
Aside from Verlander’s injury-riddled 2015 campaign, the right-hander has never thrown less than 186 innings in a season, and that total came in his rookie year. In an ever-changing pitching landscape, Verlander is about as close as you can get to a guaranteed 200 innings (*frantically knocks on wood*). Sure, the volume is nice, but James Shields can give you volume. Verlander can provide quality as well. He has exceeded a 3.50 ERA just once since 2008, and has fanned more than 200 hitters in seven of his past nine seasons. Additionally, while predicting pitchers wins is a fool’s errand, Verlander inherited the league’s best offense, with the Astros scoring nearly six runs per game in his nine starts (including the playoffs), which would give him plenty of chances to tally some lofty win totals in the next couple of seasons.
Verlander will be entering his age 35 season next year, so he’s no spring chicken. Having said that, his diminished velocity from a couple seasons ago has basically been fully restored, and Verlander is putting up ridiculous numbers in his new digs. He will call Minute Maid Park home until at least 2020 so, for the next two seasons, Verlander should should remain in the upper echelon of fantasy starters. According to Mike Gianella’s end-of-season valuations, Verlander was the fifth-most valuable starter in AL-only formats, earning $26. With his skills as sharp as ever (or at least compared to his non superhuman seasons), Verlander is likely to occupy real estate among the top 10 fantasy starters for at least the next handful of seasons.
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