A few veteran MLB players are destined for enshrinement at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, once they’re eligible. Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander is one of those special cases.
That was the case before he returned in 2022 to dominate his opposition once again, despite missing virtually all of the last two seasons due to Tommy John surgery.
The right-hander’s 25.6% strikeout rate is nearly 10 percentage points lower than what he produced in 2018-19. However, his 4.6% walk rate is in line with recent performance, and Verlander is dominating in just about every other way. Through 124 innings, he’s the owner of a 14-3 record with a sparkling 1.81 ERA and 0.87 WHIP.
Justin Verlander’s career has included two spans of peak performance
Depending on how much longer the 39-year-old pitches, could there be a debate on whether he should wear a Detroit Tigers or a Houston Astros hat on his plaque?
Detroit will always have the upper hand and is probably the likely answer because Verlander spent 13 years with the club, including signing what was then the richest contract for a pitcher in MLB history. He also put together a historic 2011 campaign for the Tigers. He not only won the American League Cy Young Award and the pitching triple crown (he led the league with 24 wins, a 2.40 ERA, and 250 strikeouts), but he also won the AL MVP Award.
However, Verlander’s late-career renaissance in Houston has led to his career having two distinct peaks. From 2009 through 2012, the right-hander posted four consecutive seasons with at least 6.0 fWAR, including 8.4 during that dominant 2011 campaign. During those 953.2 innings, he never won fewer than 17 games in a season while averaging a 2.95 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP, and 244 strikeouts.
Not counting 2020 — since it included just one start and six innings pitched — Verlander has posted two more 6.0-plus fWAR seasons since 2018. With 3.5 fWAR thus far in 2022, he’s got another shot to get close to that number. It certainly doesn’t seem like he’s on the verge of retirement, either.
Sure, Verlander is currently on a one-year deal with Houston. But he can select a $25 million player option for 2023 once he surpasses 130 innings pitched, which he’ll probably do during his next start.
If he pitches into his mid-40s like he originally planned to and picks up some extra hardware along the way, him going into Cooperstown as a Tiger may no longer be a slam-dunk decision. Either way, Verlander’s career is a testament to his elite consistency and longevity.
The chances of a third Cy Young Award for Verlander and what it could mean
In addition to winning the 2011 AL Cy Young Award, Justin Verlander also took home the honors in 2019 for the Astros. Outside of those two occurrences, he’s had several close calls. He’s finished within the top five on six different occasions, with three of those landing him in second place.
Although Shane McClanahan of the Tampa Bay Rays currently owns the best chance to win the award with +160 odds (bet $100 to win $160), according to Vegas Insider, JV is right behind him at +210. When looking at the rest of the field, it looks like a two-pitcher race since Dylan Cease is third with +800 odds.
While McClanahan currently has an edge on Verlander in ERA (1.76) and strikeout rate (35.4%), the veteran currently has the 25-year-old beat in fWAR (3.5 to 3.2) and wins (14 to 10, although we all know that’s not a huge deal anymore).
The significance of a third Cy Young Award would be massive for Verlander regarding his overall legacy in the game, though.
Ten starting pitchers have won three or more Cy Young Awards during their respective careers: Roger Clemens (seven), Randy Johnson (five), Greg Maddux (four), Steve Carlton (four), Max Scherzer (three), Clayton Kershaw (three), Pedro Martinez (three), Jim Palmer (three), Tom Seaver (three), and Sandy Koufax (three).
Verlander’s span of dominance is unique among hurlers in MLB history
While the number of Cy Young Awards is significant, we also shouldn’t overlook the span of time between the first and last victories. If we use the same list of hurlers with at least three of these things, we’ll see that the majority took home the hardware over a small period that served as their peak. Only a few spread it out:
- Clemens: 18 years between his first and last Cy Young
- Carlton: 10 years
- Johnson: seven years
- Seaver: six years
- Scherzer: four years
- Maddux: three years
- Kershaw: three years
- Martinez: three years
- Palmer: three years
- Koufax: three years
If Justin Verlander were to win his third Cy Young Award at the end of this season, he’d have a span of 11 years between his first victory and his most recent one. If we look at the above list, only Clemens would have a longer gap.
It seems unlikely to have a pitcher in his late 30s — or even his early 40s — contending for a Cy Young each year. But that’s exactly what Verlander has done since landing in Houston.
A handful of pitchers in each generation just seem to be built differently than the rest. Verlander absolutely falls into that category.
At this point, it wouldn’t be wise to put anything past the hurler. There’s a chance he can accomplish it.