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