What’s on the line, and in the way of Justin Verlander’s Cy Young campaign

What’s on the line, and in the way of Justin Verlander’s Cy Young campaign
Justin Verlander is putting together an impressive season for Houston. Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images.

The Oakland A’s have been a giant steaming turd of a baseball team this season. They made the playoffs in 2018, 2019, and 2020, were a credible 86-76 last season, but in 2022 have been the worst team in the American League and are on pace for more than 100 losses. Their offense is a joke. It’d need a double dose of Viagra to rise to impotent. The team batting average is .214, only the Tigers score fewer runs. Aside: notice how much smarter a manager the Tigers’ A.J. Hinch was when he had the Astros’ roster? Back to Oakland. The A’s stadium situation is a long-running joke, and their owner John Fisher is more interested in landing a sweetheart ballpark/real estate deal either in Oakland or Las Vegas than he is in spending to field a competitive ballclub right now. Yet over their last seven head-to-head matchups, the win tote board reads Steaming Turd 5 Astros 2. Baseball! Monday and Tuesday nights as the worst in the AL A’s were confounding the Astros, the worst in the National League Nationals were beating the best in the NL Dodgers. Baseball!

If the Astros were predestined to come out of the All Star Break winning five of their first seven games, they sure won the right five. Sweeping the doubleheader from the Yankees has the Astros in prime position to snatch the top seed in the American League playoffs, sweeping three in Seattle crushed any delusional Mariners’ fantasy about mounting a run at the Astros in the AL West. Let’s see what General Manager James Click gets done by Tuesday’s trade deadline to upgrade a roster that while excellent overall has well documented clear weaknesses.

Justin Verlander chasing history

Justin Verlander’s next command performance should be Friday night at Minute Maid Park against the Mariners. Verlander sits at 13-3 with a 1.86 earned run average. At 39 years old. After Tommy John surgery. He is brilliant. Verlander doesn’t quite have the scary mound presence of long-limbed, mulleted Randy Johnson, or the often overtly beyond smoldering intensity of Roger Clemens. I mean, you can boil it down to the nicknames: Johnson “The Big Unit.” Clemens “The Rocket.” Verlander is “JV.” That’s unfortunate considering there is not a molecule about Verlander on the mound that is junior varsity.

Clemens holds the record with seven Cy Young Awards. Johnson is in second place with five. Verlander is taking dead aim at winning his third. He’s already a lock first ballot Hall of Famer but if you’ll think of Hall membership as being made up of concentric circles, Verlander makes a big move toward the innermost circles if he wins Cy number three. After Clemens and Johnson, Greg Maddux and Steve Carlton are next with four Cys apiece. Next comes a group of six to win three times: Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Pedro Martinez, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer. Nothing but legends in that group. When Scherzer is the “weakest” link you have one heck of a club. I do not literally love Justin Verlander but I do love that he is acutely aware of baseball history, his place in it, and places he’d like to get. Winning a third Cy would be a doozy. Shane McClanahan has other ideas. Some may ask “Who?” More on him shortly.

There are 11 two-time Cy Young Award winners, all tremendous pitchers at their peaks obviously. Some are legends like Bob Gibson and Gaylord Perry. Tom Glavine and Roy Halladay are Cooperstown-enshrined. But several guys to win two Cys are not remotely close to Hall of Famers. Think Jacob deGrom, Corey Kluber, Tim Lincecum, and Denny McLain. Two others won twice and barely got a sniff in Hall of Fame balloting but for whom I think you can mount credible arguments. For Bret Saberhagen it's a shaky but not meritless case, for Johan Santana it's a pretty good case when compared to, gulp, Koufax.

The Cy Young Award was first given out in 1956. For its first eleven years only one winner was named for all of Major League Baseball. 1967 started one recipient per league.

All eyes on the competition

As for that McClanahan fellow. The 25 year old Tampa Bay Rays’ lefthander has been awesome this season, better than Verlander by a number of criteria including earned run average and ERA+ (which adjusts for ballparks pitched in), strikeouts, and strikeout-to-walk ratio. But the margins are all slim. McClanahan pitches for a clearly inferior team (meaning Rays vs. Astros) with the inferior defense backing him. The guy has been spectacular. It’s the 2022 Cy Young Award so Verlander should get no additional credit for his comeback, there’s a Comeback Player of the Year Award for that. Still, some voters may factor it in if it’s a really close call at the end. As a rookie last season McClanahan threw 123 and a third innings. He may top that total in his next start. We’ll see how he holds up the remaining two-plus months. How Verlander holds up is a question also, but if anything he’s been getting stronger. Last five starts: 5-0, ERA 0.79. The Astros adding additional days rest between several of Verlander's starts was/is a smart luxury the Astros can afford.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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