If the baseball season were to end tomorrow, Justin Verlander would be the unanimous Cy Young winner. Think about that statement for a bit. This is someone who just a few seasons ago people thought was done. People were asking questions like “Is he tipping his pitches? Where did his velocity go? Is this the beginning of the end for Verlander?” But now here he is, in the middle of a career resurgence at the age of 35, and people are starting to ask different questions. Was being traded to the Houston Astros the best thing that could have happened to him? Can he keep this up? And finally, is Justin Verlander once again the best pitcher in all of baseball? The answer to all three of this questions is a resounding “yes.”
To figure just how miraculous and outstanding this season has been for Verlander, it’s important to note that his earned run average this season is a minuscule 1.08 over 74.2 innings pitched. That leads the league as we get closer to the mid-way point of the season, with the closest person behind him being Jacob DeGrom of the New York Mets, who’s earned run average is 1.54 over 58.1 innings pitched. Not only is Verlander keeping runners from scoring, he is also keeping them off the basepaths, as well. His WHIP (Walks+Hits per Innings Pitched) is 0.710, which is also near the top of the league leaderboards across the MLB. Not to mention the fact that he is also up near the top of strikeout leaders in the league with 93. Those statistics feel like they belong in Verlander’s prime years, not now as he is inching closer to age 36.
Would Verlander have been able to put up these kinds of numbers if he was still playing for the Detroit Tigers? Possibly, but it isn’t likely. One of Verlander’s biggest traits is that he is extremely competitive, and so he is at his best when he is competing against the best teams and the best players for the chance of making the playoffs and winning the World Series. If he was still with the Tigers, he wouldn’t be anywhere near a playoff race, as the team is within a fully committed rebuild this season. Since he is with the young and supremely talented Astros, he gets to be in a playoff race each and every season that he’s with the team. He has one of, if not the, best offenses in baseball to back him up, with some of the best individual players in the Major Leagues in perennial MVP candidate Jose Altuve, young slugger Carlos Correa, and silver slugger George Springer. Not to mention the rotation of the Astros has solid players backing him up, as well.
The question of whether or not he can keep this up is an interesting one, as it depends entirely on if he can stave off injuries. While he was struggling in the 2014-2015 seasons, he was dealing with some injuries throughout the season, and some around the league said that those injuries were what caused his fastball velocity to dip to the low 90s for the first time in his career. Also in those seasons, he was struggling with maintaining mechanical consistency in his wind-up, which could have contributed to the tipping of his pitches to the opposing batters. But now, his velocity is back up to an average of 94 mph, and his mechanics are superb. If these struggles were to have hit Verlander while he was still a younger pitcher who relied on throwing his fastball by hitters, it would be hard to say that he could keep up this level of success, but Verlander at his peak never relied solely on his velocity. His supplementary pitches have been his bread and butter when it comes to getting batters out, and history has shown us that crafty veterans don’t need to throw 100 mph fastballs to strike batters out and have success. As long as he staves off serious injuries, Verlander should be able to keep this up at least for the rest of this season, and possibly for the next couple of seasons.
The final question is: Is Justin Verlander the best pitcher in baseball? Statistically speaking, right now, yes he is. As already noted, he leads the league in ERA and is near the top with every other pitching category including strikeouts, innings pitched, and WHIP. He is also a 14-year veteran, so he knows how to stay durable for 200 plus innings a year, and his performance last year in the playoffs showcased just how good he can perform under pressure. Verlander doesn’t have the velocity of some of the younger, more obvious candidates for best pitcher in baseball. But he does have craftiness and a desire to compete. These things paired with the team he has around him makes it an easy argument to make for Verlander being the best in the Major Leagues right now at his position.