When Justin Verlander won the MVP in 2011, there wasn’t a whole lot of controversy around it from major media outlets. His ERA of 2.40 over 251.0 innings was incredible, and his 24 wins surely won over the hearts of the more traditional voters. As most players tend to do with age, and especially pitchers with how much stress they put their arms under, Verlander began to tail off around 2014, falling down from absolute elite to barely above average. At age 32 in 2015, it wasn’t crazy to look at pitching age curves and think that he’s just getting older and his best days are behind. But because baseball is such a goofy yet wonderful sport, that wasn’t the case at all.
Verlander ended his 2015 season on a strong note, and the positives carried over into 2015, where he ended up with a 3.04 ERA and a 28.1% strikeout rate, which was a career high for him. Something of note was that he actually gained velocity that year, dropping down to low 90s the years before, he was back to mid 90s in 2015 and the past two seasons as well. Part of this was also driven by using his changeup less often, splitting up the remaining usage among his other pitches. His changeup was one of his best pitches early in his career but had lost its effectiveness down the line. It exists at this point as an off-speed pitch to keep hitters off balance, with a little bit of applied game theory, and it’s a strategy that’s worked fantastically for him.
In his first full season with the Astros here in 2018, anything Verlander brings is pure gravy thanks to helping win a World Series in 2017. But he’s once again taken another step forward, this time at age 35. His current strikeout rate is 33.5%, blowing his previous career best out of the water. His walk rate is down to a miniscule 5.4%, quite the drop from last year’s 8.5%, with him now being essentially perfect with the free pass. His ERA is just 1.08, and while it’s hard to imagine him keeping it that sparkly, his 2.03 FIP is also indicative that he could keep it closer than conventional wisdom might dictate.
Verlander has done an incredible job of improving himself despite age, poor performance and questions about if he could continue in the sport. And of course, his 2018 so far looks like it could be a banner year for Verlander, as he perhaps begins to make his case for a Hall of Fame career. But what makes this season so spectacular is that he isn’t doing it by anything crazy – he hasn’t added a new pitch, his velocity is the same as last year, his peripherals have improved but it’s not by anything obvious. Verlander has just pounded the zone more often, increasing his zone rate from 44.8% to 47.3%, and his stuff is so filthy that it doesn’t matter if you know his pitches are going to be close, they’re still incredibly tough to hit. Verlander is getting in more favorable counts because of this, and forcing hitters to chase more often – an increased chase rate of 31.9% to 34.3%.
Now of course some regression is going to come, it happens basically to every hot start in every sport. His BABIP is ridiculously low at .209, he has a sky high 89.3% LOB%, and a homerun to fly ball ratio of just 4.3%. There’s going to be regression in all of these areas and it’s going to balloon his ERA somewhat. It’s not really a hot take but it does bear mentioning that his best streak of the year is in the rearview mirror (well, most likely). But Verlander is an excellent pitcher nonetheless, and that really shouldn’t decrease his value to fantasy owners.
There are few players to ever grace this sport to have two different peaks of such magnitude that Justin Verlander has, and that fact alone makes him one of the most interesting men in all of sports. But Verlander is a legitimately awesome pitcher who is in the middle of a career year, assuming he doesn’t completely fall off (which is never a given with pitchers). There is going to be some regression for him, as his luck stats are too good and regression is common for hot starts, but he’s been so good that it’s not going to ruin his performance the rest of the way. Verlander is once again the class of the MLB, and should be recognized as such.