To most baseball fans, the name Justin Verlander comes with one connotation: ace.
The Astros added Justin Verlander last night in a blockbuster August waiver trade. The Justin Verlander. This is the same pitcher that was both the AL Cy Young and the AL MVP in 2011. This is the same pitcher that is a six-time All-Star. This is the same pitcher that was once in conversation for “best pitcher in baseball.”
This is also the same pitcher that has a middling 3.82 ERA and 176:64 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 172 innings this season.
Don’t get me wrong, Verlander is still a very good pitcher. But at age 34, his name carries more weight than the results that he has posted. Justin Verlander is no longer an elite pitcher; he’s no longer a top-of-the-line No. 1.
That might be okay, though. He’s still Justin freakin’ Verlander, which definitely matters, as I’ve pointed out many times in this article so far.
Is an aging Verlander enough to fix a gaping hole in the Astros rotation?
In the first half of this season, Houston’s starting pitching was among the league’s best. The team went 60-29 in the first half (which was actually still keeping pace with the Dodgers at the time), and much of that success had to do with the blossoming of their rotation. A 3.82 ERA was the fourth-best in the Majors, and it was backed up with strong peripherals (3.95 FIP, sixth-lowest in baseball).
The Astros have seen their pitching struggle in a sub-.500 post-All-Star break stretch (20-24). They have been the victim of some bad BABIP luck collectively, but the group’s 4.79 ERA registers almost a run higher than their mark in half No. 1, ranking 17th in the Major Leagues.
Lance McCullers is on the disabled list. Dallas Keuchel was there and is healthy again, but he’s being lit up. Mike Fiers won’t stop allowing home runs. The Astros are reeling at the worst time; in fact, the team that had the best record in baseball for a good chunk of the season has now fallen behind the Nationals for the second spot in MLB.
Will Verlander be the savior for Houston’s rotation?
The case for yes
Verlander has historically pitched the best under pressure.
He has pitched well in the playoffs, and he’s probably antsy to get Houston their first World Series title. Having not pitched in a legitimate pennant race since 2014, Verlander will have the opportunity to prove that he’s still amongst the best pitchers in baseball under the national spotlight of September and October baseball.
He’s been pitching better in the last few weeks, too. Over his last 10 starts, Verlander has a 2.41 ERA in 67 1⁄3 innings pitched. Hitters have slashed just .186/.238/.343 against him during this stretch, and his 78:16 strikeout-to-walk ratio is fantastic. Over the last 30 days, Verlander ranks 9th among qualified starters in ERA.
Verlander is also working with increased velocity, as I discussed in an article early last month. That’s a positive sign that he’s back to Cy Young form — or as close to back as he can possibly be at 34. At least recently, the stuff is being backed up with positive results, and that could be part of the reason why Houston went out and acquired Verlander in the first place.
The case for no
Getting Verlander is still a huge gamble for the Astros. That is probably the reason why they waited until the very last minute to deal for him.
Of course, there are other factors, like his contract, which is now a guaranteed deal for the next three years (instead of two). Hurricane Harvey has also likely played a role on the emotional side, and that probably sped up the process. And, there are the prospects, whom Houston loves so dearly. Putting all of this in perspective made it a tough decision for the Astros’ front office on whether they wanted to pony up what it would take to get him.
If the Astros’ goal is to win now, as it should be, then we should evaluate Verlander most importantly in the context of this season. We don’t know what 2018, 2019 or 2020 will bring, but if the Astros win their first World Series this postseason, it won’t matter how well Verlander pitches three years from now. That’s why we need to look at his immediate impact.
I discussed the potential positives of getting Verlander in the previous section. The negatives are there, too.
First and foremost is fatigue. Verlander isn’t young, and he still throws very hard, which makes fatigue a legitimate concern for him as the innings continue to pile up. Yes, he has been a workhorse throughout his career, but the fatigue is actually already popping up. It would be a worst-case scenario for Houston if Verlander too ended up on the disabled list within the next month. They need to be careful.
Secondly, as discussed before, Verlander isn’t an ace anymore, even though we all think he is. His command has taken a significant step back this year, exhibited in his highest walk rate since 2008. His DRA of 3.58 supports this claim, although it does suggest that he has been better than his ERA suggests due to factors outside of his control.
Simply, Justin Verlander isn’t Justin Verlander, so adding him might not actually be as big of a deal as we make it out to be.
The entire premise of this article surrounded one significant factor. We assumed that Verlander needs to be the guy in Houston.
That raises the question: Do the Astros really need Verlander to be a frontline starter?
Dallas Keuchel has been their No. 1 since winning the Cy Young two years ago, but even he still struggles to be consistent throughout the season. As mentioned, McCullers is hurt, and while he is a young gem, he may only have four or five starts to truly tune up for the ALDS. At a minimum, Verlander should be pitching Game 2 of the opening series, which will significantly impact Houston’s chances at winning the American League. Yes, he needs to be at least a guy, if not the guy.
This trade could have a profound impact on the American League postseason picture. If Verlander rises to the occasion in Houston and patches the big hole, in three months, Aug. 31 could be looked at as the date that the Astros turned their season back around. This trade could be what ultimately leads them to the American League crown... or even more than that.
While “ace” may no longer be the best way to describe Justin Verlander, he still has the opportunity to do big things with the Astros.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.