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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The Texans will have to shuffle the o-line once again. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images.

“Another one!”- DJ Khaled

That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.

The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.

Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!

One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.

As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.

To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.

I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.

The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.

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