THE PALLILOG

These eye-popping stats frame up why this season could be special for Verlander's Astros legacy

Astros Justin Verlander
Verlander is 39 years old and thriving. Composite image by Jack Brame.
Astros

The Astros’ slaughtering of the lambs tour has them in Seattle for the weekend. The Mariners are a big flop thus far stumbling along at 18-27, last in the American League West. They must be delighted to draw Justin Verlander on the mound against them in the series opener. JV has already beaten the M’s twice in 2022. He threw eight shutout innings at Seattle in his second start of the season.

Thus far in his return post-Tommy John surgery Verlander has been staggeringly magnificent. He’s 6-1 with a you-have-to-be-kidding-me 1.22 earned run average. Frame of reference: Martin Maldonado is an atrocious offensive player. If he continues at his current level of playing time and performance Maldonado will finish with one of the handful of worst offensive seasons in the history of the Major Leagues. Maldonado’s on base plus slugging percentage this season is an incredibly feeble .435. The collective OPS against Justin Verlander this season is .441. So Verlander essentially is making MLB lineups look like they have Martin Maldonado batting one through nine.

This is Verlander’s third full (fingers crossed) season of pitching as an Astro. The first two produced a near miss Cy Young runner-up finish to Blake Snell in 2018 and a narrow Cy Young win over Gerrit Cole in 2019. Verlander is the early leader on the course in 2022. He is poised to overtake Roger Clemens as the best Golden Oldie pitcher in Astros’ history. One could argue he already has.

Verlander is 39 years old and thriving. The “Rocket” turns 60 in August. I bet he could still touch at least the low-80s on the radar gun. Clemens’s Astros tenure was breathtaking. It began when he was 41 years old and covered two and two thirds seasons (he chose to start his 2006 season late). In his first Astro season (2004) Clemens won his seventh Cy Young Award after going 18-4 and turning 42 years old in August. The Rocket actually should not have won the National League Cy that year. Randy Johnson was clearly the best pitcher in the league, pitching 30 more innings than Roger with an earned run average 0.38 better. But, as one of many examples of doofy Baseball Writers’ Association voting, Johnson’s 16-14 record was held against him. His 16-14 was amazing! Johnson pitched for a laughingstock Diamondbacks’ squad that finished 51-111. A smarter electorate would have awarded “The Big Unit” his sixth Cy Young Award, which would have tied Clemens for most all-time. However…

Clemens was shafted out of two Cys he should have won. Pitching for the Red Sox in 1990 “The Rocket” went 21-6 with a 1.93 ERA. Bob Welch won 27 games for a dominant Oakland team that year, but he wasn’t even the best pitcher in his own team’s rotation (Dave Stewart was) much less best in the American League. Clemens put together his 1.93 ERA while pitching his home games in hitter-friendly Fenway Park. Welch came in at 2.95 while pitching his home games at the pitcher-friendly Oakland Coliseum. Still, blinded by the 27 wins, the voters went Welch by a comfortable margin. Welch over Clemens in 1990 is one of the lamest votes ever.

2005 wasn’t nearly as blatantly ridiculous, though Clemens’s second season in Houston was even more Astronomically good than was ’04. He was a living pitching God. In mid-August Clemens’ ERA was 1.32. One-point-three-two! It was dark comedy that season how pitiful the Astros’ offense was providing run support when Clemens was on the mound. Hence he won only 13 games despite finishing with a National League best 1.87 ERA, more than a half run better than teammate Andy Pettitte’s runner-up 2.39. Chris Carpenter won the 2005 NL Cy. He had a heckuva year for the Cardinals. He was not the best pitcher in the league. Clemens actually finished third, also behind Dontrelle Willis who would have been a better choice than Carpenter though not quite as good as Roger.

Vintage “old age” Astro pitching seasons have to include a mention of Nolan Ryan. Like 2019, 1987 was a season of juiced baseballs, home run numbers shot through the roof. So while a 2.76 ERA isn’t eye-popping, Ryan won the NL ERA title with it. Nolan was 40 through the ’87 season. Ryan’s record in ’87: 8 wins, 16 losses. Talk about non-support. Ryan finished fifth in the Cy Young voting with reliever Steve Bedrosian another dubious winner. The guy who probably should have won in ’87, or at least the guy with the highest wins above replacement (WAR) total? Bob Welch! Then with the Dodgers.

Verlander hopes to pitch well into his 40s a la Ryan and Clemens. He is 68 wins shy of 300 for his career. Logic says he doesn’t get there, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch against him.

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The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

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