The SI.com Debate Series pits two of our writers against one another on opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts. In this installment, Michael Beller and Kaelen Jones debate two legitimate aces at opposite ends of their careers: Justin Verlander and Aaron Nola.
Michael Beller makes the case for Verlander over Nola…
A few years ago, I was just like everyone else. I thought Justin Verlander was done. In 2014, a 31-year-old Verlander pitched to a 4.54 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 206 innings. He struck out just 159 batters, and his strikeout rate reached a career low 17.8%, behind the likes of Mike Leake, Aaron Harang and Jorge De La Rosa. When he made just 20 starts the next season because of a strained triceps, it seemed the writing was on the wall. How many pitchers bounce back from two subpar years and a triceps injury going into their age-33 season?
At least one, apparently. Verlander finished second in Cy Young voting in 2016, his last full season with the Tigers. A late-season trade to the Astros in 2017 rejuvenated him, and he nearly won the second Cy Young Award of his career last year at 35 years old. He was absolutely electric all season, amassing a 2.52 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 290 strikeouts and 34.8% strikeout rate in 214 innings. Those numbers sound elite enough on their own, but they look even better when you put them in context of the entire league.
Let’s consider seven statistics that, taken together, do a great job of communicating a pitcher’s complete performance: innings pitched, strikeouts, strikeout rate, walk rate, ERA, WHIP, and strikeout rate minus walk rate (K%-BB% for short). Here’s where Verlander ranked last year in those seven stats.
Strikeout rate: 1st
Walk rate (lowest): 4th
Verlander was the only pitcher in the majors in the top five in all seven stats. Jacob deGrom made the top five in six, while Max Scherzer was there in five. No one else was in the top five in more than three. Verlander and Scherzer were the only pitchers to rank first in multiple categories, with the latter leading the way in innings pitched and total strikeouts, but it was the former who came in first in three. Verlander was the only pitcher to rank in the top five in both strikeout rate and walk rate, a true sign of his dominance.
Forget about a resurgence in his early- and mid-30s. Verlander just put together the best season of his career, relative to the rest of the league, at 35 years old. What’s more, there’s no end in sight. In 39 starts with the Astros, Verlander has a 2.32 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 333 strikeouts, 34.9% strikeout rate, and 4.4% walk rate in 248 innings.
You’re not going to find a bigger Nola fan or an earlier adopter of his ace potential. Want proof. Here’s a column I wrote last year, published on February 24, 2018, predicting he’d be a top-10 pitcher last year and “2018’s breakout ace.” I’m a Nola hipster in that I was on the bandwagon before it was cool, but I’m also not a Nola hipster because I’m still on the bandwagon even though he has hit the big time. Still, look at what Verlander has done since getting to Houston. Look at what he did last year. I don’t see how you can look at Verlander’s track record and recent history and rank him any worse than fourth among pitchers, trailing only Scherzer, Chris Sale and Jacob deGrom. And, in fact, I’d put him ahead of Sale and deGrom before I moved him behind, say, Nola, Blake Snell, Corey Kluber or Gerrit Cole.
Verlander joins Scherzer and deGrom as the three pitchers most likely to give fantasy owners elite rates—ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate—over 200-plus innings. In an age where shifting bullpen usage has thinned out the ranks of legitimate SP2s and SP3s in the fantasy game, there are few things more valuable than a 200-inning ace. Verlander is a much better bet to be that than Nola.
Kaelen Jones makes the case for Nola over Verlander…
Beller, I tell a friend of mine all the time that I’m here for a good time, not a long time. That same friend of mine routinely reminds me that pitching in baseball is volatile. Who knew principles of living life to the fullest were so applicable to fantasy baseball?
When you’ve got the opportunity to bank on a player who’s entering his age-26 season and emerged as an ace the previous year, you do it. Right now. Especially when you’re considering said pitcher in favor of a (former?) ace who we know is on the back end of his career. After all, Father Time is still undefeated. Yes, Verlander has bounced back from that two-year stretch where he wasn’t the same guy that you referenced. Yes, he’s been dominant since joining the Astros. But he’s going to be a 36-year-old pitcher this season. A limitless sky is not what comes to mind for most of us when thinking about any pitcher in his age-36 season, even one as dominant and resilient as Verlander. I am, however, thinking that of Nola.
Last year, Nola finished third in NL Cy Young voting behind Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom, and earned his first All-Star nod. He was seventh in the majors in wins (17), fifth in innings (212 1/3), fourth in ERA (2.37), eighth in strikeouts (224) and fifth in WHIP (0.97). For the advanced stats crowd out there, Nola also finished 14th in strikeout rate (27%) 12th in K%-BB% (20%) and 12th in SIERA (3.40).
Ironically, just earlier I was thinking about how it’s been five years since 2014. No, I wasn’t thinking about that year because of Verlander’s short-lived regression you referenced, Beller. It’s because that was the year that the Phillies used the seventh overall pick on Nola. That’s quite the pedigree, huh? Nola has improved in nearly every statistical category since being promoted to the majors, and that was even as he dealt with a strained elbow in 2016 and strained back in 2017. Last year, he stayed healthy and reached the potential befitting a seventh overall pick in the draft. And now, what, he’s going to regress in his age-26 season? A player with an elite pedigree who already has one Cy Young caliber season under his belt? I don’t think so.
Contextually, Nola received some upgrades this season. Jean Seguray is a massive upgrade at short from J.P. Crawford and Scott Kingery, a huge deal for a pitcher like Nola, who has a career 50.9% ground-ball rate. The Phillies dramatically improved their offense, adding Segura, J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, and…wait, what’s his name again? Oh, right, Bryce Harper. They also signed Bryce Harper. The Phillies ranked 22nd in runs and Nola had the seventh-worst run support among pitchers who threw at least 160 innings last year, yet he still won 17 games. He can be a 20-game winner this season.
Beller, I know Verlander was phenomenal last season. I’m sure he’ll be good-to-great this season. He could even put together another “how-is-he-still-doing-this” campaign. But at the end of the day, when I’m choosing between players who are near-equals and one is 10 years younger, I’m opting for the player who is still on the rise. Make some room on that Nola bandwagon.