- Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball this year, but how he got here is nothing short of incredible.
This story has been repeated endlessly over the last nine months, but there’s still something about it that feels surreal enough to bear repeating once again: Four years ago, Justin Verlander had apparently hit the “decline” of his career hard, and the ensuing “fall” seemed perhaps just a matter of time. His 30th birthday had come and gone, his fastball was starting to fail him, and the only category in which he led the league was earned runs allowed. Two seasons later, of course, he’d grabbed that narrative and swung it all the way around. Instead of being a pitcher who deteriorated after his first decade in the major leagues, he’d become one who found and made any adjustments possible to keep performing near his peak. Then, though, something else happened. Last September, he was traded to Houston, and he underwent another change. Verlander got even better. Now, at age 35, he’s the best he’s ever been—and quite possibly one of the best we’ve ever seen.
That last part there sounds like a ridiculous exaggeration. It’s obvious that Verlander is doing something special here, sure. But enough to make his current run one of baseball’s most remarkable pitching performances ever?
Yep. The easiest way to figure that out? Just try to find a comparison for Verlander’s time in Houston so far.
The ground rules
Verlander hasn’t yet pitched a full season with the Astros, but his body of work there is still large enough to comfortably draw some conclusions. Since being traded last year, he’s thrown 121 regular-season innings. He also had 36 innings of excellent postseason performance—at a level pretty similar to what he’s done throughout the rest of his time in Houston—but the playoffs are a different ballgame, particularly when it comes to making any historical comparisons. For the purposes of this exercise, then, we’ll focus on his regular season work alone.
Nowadays, 121 innings equals just about three-quarters of the average starting pitcher’s workload for a full season. So we’ll compare Verlander’s 2017-18 Houston numbers to other single seasons, in an attempt to see what we might be looking at if he’s able to keep this up for the equivalent of a full year. It’s not a perfect comparison—taking Verlander’s cross-season stretch against single-year performances across history—but it works well enough, and so we’ll roll with it.
Searching for a present-day match
The first question to ask here is how Verlander matches up with everyone else pitching today. The answer: He doesn’t, really, because he’s been that much better than all of his peers. Since being traded to Houston, Verlander’s posted an 1.19 ERA; no other starter has posted a figure under 1.50 in that timeframe, and only one other (Corey Kluber) has posted one under 2.00. No one has stymied hitters more, with an opposing on-base percentage of .202. And if getting onboard against him has been hard, getting home has been nearly impossible: Verlander has a left-on-base rate of 93%, which is the best in baseball and makes him one of just three pitchers with a number above 85% there. Behind those results is the fact that no one’s had a higher gap between his strikeout and walk percentages—Verlander’s 28 percentage point differential puts him just above the names that have typically occupied the top of that list in recent years, Max Scherzer and Chris Sale. So while Verlander doesn’t lead in quite every statistical category, he leads in many of the most important ones, and often by a considerable margin.
The verdict: There’s no other starting pitcher right now, of any age, who compares to Verlander.
Checking for another pitcher who unlocked this kind of performance in his thirties
Let’s open the discussion up to history, then, but focus on pitchers who might fit this career arc. In other words, players who took successful careers and leveled up into a truly insane stretch of dominance after they turned 30. Without even looking at any numbers, that sentence probably makes you think that you have an answer here. You’re probably thinking, oh, Randy Johnson, when he signed with the Diamondbacks in 1998. And that’s a pretty good answer—if not, perhaps, too good of one. After all, Johnson won the Cy Young award in each of his first four seasons in Arizona. That would be a wild stretch for any pitcher, but remember, Johnson was 35 years old when those four seasons began. He led baseball in strikeouts every year during that time, and for three of those four seasons, he was also the leader in ERA and fielding-independent pitching, all against the high-octane offenses of the time, no less.
Johnson was, in a word, absurd. So how could Verlander possibly stack up? One of the best metrics for comparing pitchers across generations is ERA+, which takes a player’s ERA and adjusts for factors such as ballpark environment and the quality of his opponents and then measures him against the league average, which is always set at 100. So a pitcher with, say, a 150 ERA+ is one who was 50% better than the average during the time that he pitched. Johnson’s ERA+ over those four years was 187. His highest single-season ERA+ in that time was 195, meaning that he was nearly twice as good as the league-average pitcher of his time. Ridiculous.
As for Verlander? His ERA+ is 329. He’s been more than three times as good.
Think of the other pitchers who have had some of the best performances in their mid-thirties and beyond—names like Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Warren Spahn—and run into the same wall. Not only are their breakouts not as extreme compared to their past performance as Verlander’s has been, their highest points haven’t been quite as high. Each posted his highest single-season ERA+ in his thirties (or, for Clemens, his forties), but their numbers there were 226, 159 and 188, respectively. Those are all remarkably, historically good. None of them even comes close to Verlander’s 329.
A metric like ERA+ can’t account for everything, of course; there’s more to evaluating pitching than just analyzing one version of the number of runs allowed, no matter how well-adjusted and comprehensive that version may be. But in terms of a figure that allows you to compare across decades and scoring environments, it’s hard to ask for anything better—and it’s impossible to find anyone here who remotely compares to Verlander.
Another guy to pitch like this past 30, period
Okay, so there’s no one who’s broken out quite like Verlander has in his thirties. Instead, let’s just look at any starting pitcher at all who’s performed like this in his thirties—say, everyone who’s recorded an ERA+ above 205 as a 30-year-old or beyond. That gives you this:
It’s an exclusive club! And yet you still might be able to make a reasonable case that Verlander’s current run is the best of them all. Again, ERA+ is somewhat one-dimensional as a measuring stick, but Verlander remains so remarkably far above everyone else there that it feels a little silly even to poke at the tiny gaps in the other numbers here. The best comparison that you can make for him is Bob Gibson in 1968—which is a ridiculous thing to say, about anyone, ever, considering that Gibson was the vanguard of a year of pitching so dominant that the league literally had to change the game to accommodate it. His 1968 was perhaps the most impressive performance of the live-ball era. Right now, though? Verlander is standing out from his peers in a way that’s not just similar, but actually statistically greater.
Any starting pitcher, ever
Verlander has no exact peers in his age group, then, at any point in history. Let’s try comparing him to all starting pitchers, ever—has anyone been so effective at preventing runs, relative to his era and environment?
Gibson’s 1968 is one of only a very tiny handful of pitcher’s seasons with an ERA+ above 250. The others form a capsule of some of the absolute best performances in baseball’s history, if not the best. And Verlander still sits at the top, more effective at keeping runs at bay than any starting pitcher ever before.
Any pitcher, ever
Let’s do something a little wild, then. If it’s this difficult to find a comparison among starting pitchers, why not open it up to a reliever? How does Verlander’s recent run compare to, say, prime Mariano Rivera?
It’s naturally trickier to make a fair comparison here, of course, but just to play around, let’s look at some of the same numbers that we’ve been using throughout. Through 137 innings across 2008 and 2009, Rivera was essentially impossible to face. This was the closer’s most impressive stretch in terms of shutting down scoring, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio higher than 8.0 and an ERA+ of… 287. A truly impressive run by baseball’s most dominant reliever, and you can still safely claim that Verlander has been better.
Of course, the highest ERA+ doesn’t automatically guarantee the finest pitching performance (or the most powerful, or the most aesthetically pleasing, or the most impressive) and there’s still plenty of room to debate all of that. Being the pitcher with the most impressive track record of preventing scoring in the context of his environment does not have to be the same as being the pitcher who’s the best. The charts above don’t capture the magic of Verlander’s improved slider, or Greg Maddux’s control, or Pedro Martinez’s swagger. And, yes, it’s important to remember that Verlander hasn’t yet shown a full season of this, let alone multiple seasons. But the fact that you can play this numbers game at all—that it even makes sense to begin to wonder if Verlander’s season might possibly be somewhere in the conversation of the best here—is proof of just how insane this performance has been.