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  • By any measure, Justin Verlander is among the tiny handful of the best pitchers of his generation and the slightly-less-tiny handful of the best pitchers in history. Throwing his third no-hitter, on Sunday, is just another way to prove it.
By Emma Baccellieri
September 01, 2019

The list of MLB pitchers to throw a no-hitter is full of quirks, guys whose careers crested on this one game, names you’d otherwise miss out on. The list of pitchers to throw two no-hitters has these, too, albeit fewer of them. The list of pitchers to throw three no-hitters?

It’s short: Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller, Cy Young. And, now, Justin Verlander.*

There are no accidents on this list—no aberrations, no surprises, no mysteries. There’s just a veritable Mount Rushmore of pitching talent, drawn from more than a century of Major League Baseball, and the newest resident richly deserves the honor.

Verlander, of course, already had done plenty to place his name in this sort of company. He’s one of baseball’s top 20 pitchers in career strikeouts. Among pitchers with more than 2,000 IP, he’s one of just seven to average more than one strikeout per inning, and one of 30 to keep a career ERA+ above 125. Rookie of the Year. Cy Young. MVP. By any measure, he’s among the tiny handful of the best pitchers of his generation and the slightly-less-tiny handful of the best pitchers in history. This is, and should be, obvious. Sunday’s performance—and the three-no-hitter-club membership that comes with it—gives him just another way to prove it.

To trace Verlander’s no-hitters is to trace the narrative arc of his career. For his first one, in 2007, he was reigning as Rookie of the Year for a team coming off a trip to the World Series—24 years old, clearly full of promise, meeting every expectation, passing every expectation. For his second one, in 2011, he was in the middle of his best season yet at the time, the one that would win him Cy Young and MVP. (He was also facing the Blue Jays in Toronto, just he was on Sunday, which makes him the first pitcher ever to throw two no-hitters in the same city as a visiting pitcher.) By this point, he’d established himself as one of the game’s best pitchers. He’d briefly tasted big-league adversity—difficulty adjusting in 2008, arguably still his worst season to date—and he’d used it to get better, building from one year to the next in a ladder that seemed destined to lead only to the top of the game.

While there were four years between the first and second no-hitters, Verlander had to wait twice as many between the second and third. He turned 30. He seemingly started to lose his fastball. He began struggling with injury. This may not have been his career suffering a fall, but it certainly felt like a decline. The rest of the story seemed clear. It was familiar: Baseball had watched him dominate in his 20s, and, well, those were over now, and this was the next step.

But, of course, it wasn’t. Verlander switched the storyline. He reframed his game, made necessary tweaks, was traded to the Astros—became not just as good as he’d ever been, but even better. Since 2016, Verlander has finished each year in the top five for Cy Young, each time with an ERA+ above 130 and a K/9 above 9.5, something that he’d never before pulled off in three consecutive years in what had previously looked like his prime. He’s on track to do it all once more in 2019, leading the American League in ERA (2.56), WHIP (0.77) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.34).

For any pitcher to perform like this is special. For anyone to do it as is Verlander—after age 35, particularly in an era defined by its youth movement—it’s nothing short of remarkable. Sunday’s no-hitter didn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know, but it certainly provided a reminder: If you’re not paying attention, you should be. Verlander is putting on a performance for the ages.

*There was also one pitcher, Larry Corcoran, who threw three no-hitters in the 1880s, before the start of modern baseball as we know it. Read more about his fascinating life—and the mystery of his death—here.

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