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Justin Verlander Extraordinary is 39… and Baseball’s Best Pitcher | Houston Astros

When Justin Verlander got José Ramírez to end the sixth inning in last week’s game between the Houston Astros and the Cleveland Guardians, the right veteran left the field after throwing six shutout innings. Hardly breaking a step or a smile, it was another outstanding excursion up the hill.

However, Thursday’s win wasn’t just another game. It gave Verlander his 15th win of the season and dropped his ERA to 1.73, both best in the majors. For a 39-year-old who only played in one game in the previous two seasons – due to an arm injury and surgery by Tommy John to repair the damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm – it was another reminder of just how special a pitcher is Verlander is and what a historic season he is putting together.

As the ace of a pitching staff that leads the AL in several major categories, including ERA, WHIP and opponent’s batting average, Verlander is a big reason the Astros are battling the New York Yankees for the AL’s best record. In a sign of how dominant he has been, Verlander is the favorite to win his third Cy Young award in the American League and is also the runaway leader, according to ESPN’s Cy Young Predictor.

After winning the award in 2011 and 2019, Verlander could join a list of just 10 others to win at least three Cy Young Awards in MLB history. And at 39, he would become part of an even smaller list to win the award at such a late age.

What’s even more remarkable is the youth of the three pitchers who came closest to him this year to take the award away from him, if you can even call them close. Chicago White Sox’s Dylan Cease (26), Toronto’s Alek Manoah (24) and Tampa’s Shane McClanahan (25) have fewer than 175 starts combined, compared to Verlander’s mammoth 473 in 17 seasons. When Verlander won his first Cy Young in 2011 and his first MVP that same season, Cease, Manoah, and McClanahan were still in high school.

Regardless of awards and its competition, Verlander may actually be getting better. If the 2022 season ended today, among his seasons in which he pitched 35+ innings, he would have career-best ERA and win-loss percentage, best walks per nine innings, and second-best WHIP and batting average of his opponents. And if Verlander continues that pace for what is expected to be 10 regular season starts remaining, he will eclipse 20 wins for the third time in his career. The other two times come in his two previous Cy Young seasons.

How does Verlander still log shiny numbers despite pitching more than 3,000 innings in his career? While he’s known for his punching power – Verlander has averaged more than one strikeout per innings throughout his career – it’s his control and ability to create weak club contact that is most effective. Verlander’s 1.6 walks per nine innings is the fourth-best in the majors, and he’s used his fastball half the time — less than about 60% in recent years — allowing his slider and curveball to force his opponents to generate their own power.

Justin Verlander use of the field

As good as Verlander was until injuries threatened to briefly end his career — he went 16-9 in 2018 with a 2.52 ERA and 21-6 in 2019 with a 2.58 ERA — the Astros were understandably cautious, tying too much of their payroll to him after paying the veteran $66 million over the past two seasons to essentially rehab from an injury.

But after the Gem took Verlander to 130 innings Thursday, a player option was triggered for next season, meaning the Astros will have their ace in 2023 at a bargain price of $25 million by MLB standards.

Barring a serious injury, we could be back in a year and marvel at even more of Verlander’s historic achievements as a 40-year-old. By then, the Virginia native had completely destroyed his 39-year-old compatriots. Of the 75 pitchers in MLB history who pitched at least 130 innings in their season at the age of 39, Verlander is in a different league to himself.

No other pitcher has an ERA under two at the same age, although Verlander has pitched less than half of the 268.1 innings pitched by Eddie Plank, who comes closest with a 2.08 ERA in 1915. In the 21st century, an era when pitch and innings counts are more strictly enforced and abided by, the closest thing is future Hall-of-Famer Adam Wainwright of the St. Louis Cardinals, who scored in 206.1 last season innings posted a 3.05 ERA, a spectacular campaign in itself. If it weren’t for Verlander’s amazing numbers, there’s a good chance Wainwright, who is having another great season at 40, would have flattered the baseball community.

Best age 39 seasons

If Verlander does indeed win his third Cy Young Award, his 240 career wins and counts, his 2011 MVP season (which also included a triple crown), and his 2017 World Series ring mean he’s certainly among the best pitchers of all counting times will grace a baseball field. But until he hangs up his cleats, and it may be a few more years before he does, the baseball world will have to invent new superlatives to describe just how extraordinary Justin Verlander is.

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