- A few years ago, it looked like Justin Verlander might be finished. Now, he's back to being one of the best in the game.
Four years ago, Justin Verlander looked like he was headed over the cliff. Then with the Tigers, the former MVP was coming off one of his worst seasons ever in 2014, with a 4.54 ERA, 85 ERA+, only 0.9 WAR, and just 159 strikeouts in 206 innings. Worse, his once-vaunted velocity had slipped from 95-plus in his prime all the way to a pedestrian 92.3 mph. At 31 years old and with over 1,700 innings already on his arm, there was plenty of reason to believe that the next stage in Verlander’s career was going to be an ugly one.
Instead, here we are in 2018, with Verlander looking better than ever. On Wednesday night, the now-35-year-old ace of the Astros fired a complete-game shutout against the Angels, his first since 2015, allowing just five hits and a walk and striking out seven. In the process, he picked up career strikeout No. 2,500—racking it up against phenom Shohei Ohtani, no less—to make him just the 33rd man in major league history to reach that impressive round number.
The shutout, meanwhile, lowered Verlander’s numbers on the season to broken video game levels: a 1.05 ERA and 377 ERA+ in 68 2/3 innings, all of which lead the majors, to go with a strikeout rate of 32.8%—the best of his career and fifth-highest among all qualified starters. Since joining Houston last August, he’s become impossible to hit, with a 1.05 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 102 2/3 innings pitched. That doesn’t include his absurd 2017 postseason, when he allowed just eight earned runs in 36 2/3 innings and struck out 38 (though it’s worth noting his 2.21 ERA from last October would actually make his overall Astros stats worse). And his once-laggard fastball is humming like new, sitting at 94.9 mph this year after averaging 95.2 last season. Old Verlander is making the Verlander of old look like a chump.
He’s also doing wonders for a Hall of Fame case that looked stuck in the mud after that dismal 2014 season. It’s worth noting that, on its own, 2,500 career strikeouts don’t lead to automatic entry to Cooperstown. Just look at the last man to join that club: erratic righty A.J. Burnett, who won’t be getting a bronze plaque any time soon; likewise for fellow 2,500 members Jerry Koosman, Chuck Finley, David Cone, and Frank Tanana.
What separates Verlander from compilers like Burnett or Finley, though, and puts him more in the company of Bob Gibson and Pedro Martinez is how quickly he got to 2,500—and how dominant he’s been in the process. As the Athletic’s Jake Kaplan notes, Verlander reached 2,500 in his 395th career start, making him only the sixth member of the group to get there before his 400th turn. The others? Martinez, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, and Tom Seaver. Verlander’s career ERA+ of 126, meanwhile, is tied for ninth best among all pitchers with 2,500 or more strikeouts, just ahead of John Smoltz, Bob Feller and Mike Mussina—two Hall of Famers and a guy who should already be in—and right behind Gibson, Seaver and Curt Schilling. And his career strikeout rate of 8.61 per nine is fourth highest in the 2,500 Club, behind three of the greatest K artists ever in Johnson, Martinez and Ryan and a smidge ahead of Schilling.
Verlander is an exceptional and efficient pitcher, and that should help him in chasing down the goal that will cement him as an all-time great: The 3,000 Strikeout Club. Of the 16 pitchers who’ve recorded 3,000 or more career strikeouts, only two aren’t in the Hall of Fame: Schilling (who probably will be eventually, unless he keeps advocating for hanging journalists) and Clemens (denied for now thanks to his PED-stained past, but still likelier than not to make it in). Given Verlander’s career strikeout rate, 3,000 would take another 500 or so innings, or just over another two years. That’s a tall task at 35, but well within the reach of this version of Verlander—and he could even get there sooner, given that his strikeout-per-nine rate with the Astros has ballooned to 11.1.
As it stands now, Verlander is on the cusp of the Hall but still has work to do. His 60.0 career WAR is 13.4 shy of the average Hall of Fame starter, and his JAWS score (the formula invented by ex-SI scribe and current Fangraphs senior writer Jay Jaffe) of 52.1 is on the outside looking in as well by just under 10 points. He still needs, in other words, another three or four above-average seasons to make the cut. Bill James’ Black and Gray Ink scores, though, have Verlander ahead of the pack, thanks in large part to his longevity and durability allowing him to pile up innings and starts.
Just as interesting as Verlander’s future, though, is who among his contemporaries will join him in the 2,500 Club (or beyond). The ageless Bartolo Colón will be next, as he sits at 2,486, and the diminished Felix Hernandez (2,387) should eventually be able to drag himself across that finish line as well. Neither, though, is a great bet to get much further; the same can be said of Zack Greinke (2,294 but 34 years old) and Cole Hamels (2,284 but also 34 and declining rapidly). Instead, the man above 2,000 who has the best chance to join Verlander in the quest for 3,000 is Max Scherzer. At 2,240 strikeouts so far, Scherzer still has quite a ways to go, and he’s already 33. But currently averaging 14 whiffs per nine this season and arguably the most durable pitcher in the game right now, 2,500 should come early next year. If he can keep that pace up, 3,000 will await sometime in his age-36 or 37 season—ahead of Verlander’s pace, likely, and with far less mileage on his arm.
Ultimately, neither Verlander nor Scherzer is a threat to Ryan’s record 5,714 punchouts, even in this super-high-strikeout era. But for Verlander, this late-career renaissance has given him a second chance at joining the Express in the Hall of Fame and in cementing himself as one of his era’s strikeout kings and greatest starters.