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It's hard to ignore the familiar vibes Astros' Justin Verlander is giving off right now

It's hard to ignore the familiar vibes Astros' Justin Verlander is giving off right now
We're witnessing something very special with Verlander.Composite image by Jack Brame.
These eye-popping stats frame up why this season could be special for Verlander's Astros legacy

Sports science and medicine have seen some scary improvements. ACL, Achilles, and Tommy John surgeries usually meant the end of a career. Then it meant you'd never be the same, but could still play. Now, it's a blip on the radar screen or something that should be monitored. Athletes are now more in tune with their bodies and the rigors of their seasons. They now diet and train specifically for their sports and the particular positions they play. Gone are the days of smoking cigarettes at halftime (RIP Len Dawson), waiting until camp to get into shape, and playing multiple sports at a high level.

One guy at the forefront of this movement has been Tom Brady. His TB12 brand is more than another athlete peddling his merch. It's also a fitness and lifestyle brand that encourages people to live a healthier life that he's developed in conjunction with his personal trainer Alex Guerrero. To say it's worked would be an understatement. Brady, 45, is entering his 23rd year playing the most important position in football and is doing so at a very high level. He's still considered one of the best at his position in the league.

Justin Verlander is MLB's Tom Brady. Verlander, 39, is the AL Cy Young leading candidate. 16-3, a 1.87 ERA, a 0.85 WHIP, 149 innings pitched, and 148 Ks in 23 starts. Those aren't just Cy Young numbers, they're the numbers of a pitcher who should be considered for AL MVP as well. Did I mention he's coming off Tommy John surgery and only pitched six innings the last two years?

Like Brady, Verlander has been doing this a very long time. He's gone 15 years between his first and last All Star appearances (nine overall), eight years between his two Cy Young award wins, and went 12 years between his first & last no-hitters (three overall). When he re-signed for two years $50 million (player option for next season), some were skeptical. I was not one of them. This guy is a pro's pro and knows how to pitch. He also knows his body, which is why he and the team decided he needed to come out after throwing six no-hit innings (91 pitches, 10Ks) in his last start against the Twins. If you look at the stats and science, pitchers coming off Tommy John shouldn't throw more than 150-160 innings. Verlander is fully expected to shatter that notion. He's the exception, not the rule.

Guys like this don't come around anymore. Gone are the days of starting pitchers throwing 180-200+ innings (per season) of high quality baseball over the course of their careers. In his previous 17 seasons, the only times Verlander hasn't thrown more than 180 innings: 2005 he pitched in 2 games (didn't qualify as a rookie), 2015 he started on the injured list, 2020 he threw six innings in one start and missed the 2021 season with the surgery/recovery.

When he inevitably opts out and looks to re-sign, Jim Crane and James Click need to give him another blank check. I don't care what it costs. You cannot put a value on a guy you know will take the ball every fifth day, throw at least 180 innings every year, and give you a chance to win every time he takes the mound. He and his wife love it here. He won his only ring here. Fans, teammates, and media all universally love him. He's a surefire first ballot Hall of Famer. Let's make sure it's an Astros hat on that plaque.

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The Astros host the Orioles on Friday night. Composite Getty Image.

Say it with me: The Astros aren’t dead yet. The Astros aren’t dead yet. The Astros aren’t dead yet! The odds favor them missing the postseason for the first time since 2016, but they definitely aren’t dead yet. Too much season left.

The Astros sure hope they hit their season standings rock bottom in falling 10 games back of Seattle in the American League West Tuesday. Two wins over the hapless White Sox later, coupled with two Mariner losses in Cleveland, and the deficit is eight going into the weekend. The Astros’ real race may be for a Wild Card. On that front they sit six games behind Minnesota, six and a half back of Kansas City. The Twins and Royals currently hold the second and third Wild Card slots. The Astros also trail Boston by five games.

The Astros’ season needs some positive jolts if it is not to slip away. A shot at one comes Friday night with pitcher Jake Bloss called up from Double-A Corpus Christi for his Major League debut. He is merely tasked with facing the best offense in the AL as the Baltimore Orioles visit Minute Maid Park this weekend. Bloss was the Astros’ third round draft pick last summer. He turns 23 on Sunday. He started well this season at High-A Asheville earning the move up to AA. As a Hook, Bloss was spectacular in posting a 1.61 earned run average over eight starts with a scant 19 hits allowed over 44 2/3 innings. Bloss gets the fast big league call out of necessity (with Justin Verlander on the injured list), because he excelled, and because the Astros have no significant pitching prospect knocking at the door from Triple-A Sugar Land. Not one guy in the Space Cowboys’ rotation has given up fewer hits than he has thrown innings. The Pacific Coast League is a hitters’ league, but that is a damning stat.

Blame game

With the Astros’ season a big fail to this point, it is the nature of the beast for some to call for the head(s) of Manager Joe Espada and/or General Manager Dana Brown. Espada has certainly not distinguished himself as some brilliant rookie skipper, but blaming numerous lackluster player performances on him is classic scapegoating. Brown is in his second season and does have a couple of stains on his early record, but the foremost task Brown was charged with at hire was rejuvenating the Astros’ weak farm system. It takes two or three draft classes to infuse some depth of young talent. If the Astros are sellers as the trade deadline approaches, selling is another avenue through which Brown tries to add good prospects.

Brown picked Bloss. Brown’s first first round pick was shortstop Brice Matthews who also recently earned promotion to Corpus Christi. If Jeremy Pena doesn’t show improvement, and if Matthews is fulfilling his potential, he could be challenging for the shortstop job by the end of next season. 2023 second round pick, pitcher Alonzo Tredwell, has been bad so far with the Low-A Fayetteville Woodpeckers.

Midsummer Classic

The first phase of All-Star balloting ends Thursday at 11AM Central Time. The Astros’ representation on the American League team is simple: three definites and one maybe. Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, and Yordan Alvarez all rightfully are poised to be elected starters. Altuve has to hold off the Rangers’ Marcus Semien, but at minimum will be added as a reserve. For Altuve it will be his ninth All-Star team, adding on to his franchise record after not making the team last year because he missed the first month and a half of the season with a broken thumb.

Tucker and Alvarez will both become three-time All-Stars. Neither has been voted a starter before. Even with the time he’s missing on the injured list, Tucker belongs in the outfield with the Yankees’ superstar combo of Aaron Judge and Juan Soto. Alvarez’s opportunity to win the vote at designated hitter opened up when Shohei Ohtani switched leagues in signing with the Dodgers.

Last year the Texas Rangers dominated the AL lineup with five starters. It was not an omen that they would go on to win the World Series. This year Arlington hosts the game at Globe Life Field, but Semien is the only Ranger anywhere close to the lead in the fan voting.

As for the one Astro All-Star maybe, that is Ronel Blanco. The 30-year-old has come out of nowhere to be the Astros’ ace, but he is not a lock. I don’t think his foreign substance suspension hurts much other than it factors into Blanco having pitched fewer innings than almost all other candidates. It’s a matter of math. A maximum of nine starting pitchers make the squad, there may only be eight taken. It’s not hard to name nine guys who could get the nod over Blanco, especially when you factor in that every team must be represented. Tyler Anderson is the most deserving Angel. Erick Fedde or Garret Crochet is the most deserving White Sox (Sock?). The Seattle Mariners have no deserving everyday player, though some might argue Cal Raleigh if three catchers are taken. The M’s are dominating the AL West on the back of stellar starting pitching. It’s hard to see no Mariner starter getting picked, although only Logan Gilbert at 2.93 has an earned run average within 0.50 of Blanco’s 2.43. Blanco has three more starts to strengthen his case before the staff is named July 7.

*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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