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Is Justin Verlander’s historic pace sustainable?

Verlander is on pace to break several records including Bob Gibson’s memorable ERA-title, but can he do it?

MLB: Houston Astros at Los Angeles Angels Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It is undeniable how dominant Justin Verlander has been since being shipped to the Houston Astros from the Detroit Tigers in a post trade-deadline move that shocked the baseball world. His 1.05 ERA in 102.2 innings pitched since the trade are simply incredible, especially because it’s split between two seasons. Indeed, a change of scenery has caused Verlander to flourish more than he ever has before. A driving force behind the Astros winning the 2017 World Series, he has come into 2018 with an even more positive outlook on their place in the league.

Not only that, Verlander has also upped his level of dominance to historic proportions so far this season. In fact, according to Baseball Reference, Verlander is on pace to set the lowest ERA in the first half of a season since the All-Star game was created back in 1933.

His numbers across the board are almost equally as insane, but that tidbit comes with a caveat: how sustainable are those type of numbers? That’s a bit of a loaded question given the propensity for pitching numbers, especially small sample sizes, to have huge influences from luck and chance.

Let’s start with somethings we can’t deny are skill based. His walk rate (5.5 percent) is right in line with Verlander’s MVP season in 2011 of 5.9 percent, and only 1.8 percent lower than his career average. There is not a ton a variation through those different sample sizes, so it’s almost certainly a skill at this point, with Verlander into his 13th full big league season.

One number I would bet on remaining close to the same is his batting average against. Verlander is incredibly skilled at limiting base hits, much like Nolan Ryan was throughout his career. Verlander’s career batting average against of .230 is much higher than the .146 average he’s allowed in 2018, but his 2011 MVP season he had a .191 batting average against which suggests he’ll at least hover around the .160 to .170 area with some slight fluctuation.

Another skill is his ability to limit hard contact. With a career hard contact of rate of 27.2 percent, 2018 is only 2.8 percent lower in that regard. Along with hard contact rate is soft contact rate, as they often go hand in hand; he has a soft contact rate of 21.3 percent, just 2.5 percent higher than his career number. Both his hard and soft contact rate numbers were better in his 2011 season than they’ve been so far, so realistically he could improve them as the season progresses.

A swinging strike rate of 13.4 percent would be a career high but only by two percent, but this is one of the metrics that would be most hard to predict. Swings and misses are a fickle thing and sometimes pitchers can challenge you with every pitch and you simply can’t make contact. Other times, pitchers have perfect pitch placement and give up hit after hit, so this would be hard to predict, but with Verlander having made slight adjustments in the way he approaches the game in the last year, this is one we can put in the likely will remain the same category.

Now, some numbers that likely will regress as the season progress. The most glaring of these is his 4.6 percent home run per fly ball rate which is just so ridiculously low that it’s almost surely to increase at some point. His xFIP says so at it is 2.44 points higher than his ERA and 1.29 points higher than his FIP. This suggests that as Verlander’s sample size increases so will his home run per fly ball rate and with it, could come his ERA and FIP unless he makes up for it in other areas.

Another really obscene number is Verlander’s 90.5 percent left on base percentage, something that is very likely going to decrease given the high intensity that comes with runners on base and even more so when they’re in scoring position. It would be very difficult to keep in place. Consider this, Washington Nationals starter Max Scherzer, who also won the Cy Young the past two years, never had a higher left of base rate than 82 percent. In fact, since 2015, only two pitchers have had an left of base rate above 85 percent, (Zack Greinke in 2015 and Clayton Kershaw in 2017) so it’s a very rare feat to accomplish and something that won’t likely be duplicated by Verlander.

The one number I have yet to really discuss is run prevention, because of all the metrics, this one is the hardest at least in this instance to determine whether it’s more skill-based or luck-based. Verlander has been one of this generations greatest run preventers; however, an ERA hovering around 1.00 is not only very hard, but historic. Bob Gibon’s 1968 ERA of 1.12 was a contributing factor to the league lowering the mound in 1969 and is the sport’s 4th lowest qualified season ERA in history. While history says that Verlander won’t finish with an ERA around the 1.20 mark, he has the past 100+ innings in an Astros uniform. Even if he doesn’t, he could very likely finish something around the 1.50 or 1.60 mark—similar to what Los Angeles Dodgers starter Zack Greinke did back in 2015 with a 1.66 ERA.

There are no guarantees in baseball, but some of Verlander’s numbers are all but guaranteed to regress, and others are far more likely to remain the same. Which ones will change and which ones will remain the same are anyone’s best guess as there’s a reason people say that “you can’t predict baseball,” because you truly can’t. All we can do now is sit back and enjoy one of the most dominant stretches by a starter in baseball history. Not only is it fun to watch, it’s fun to look and compare his numbers to previous stretches from other pitchers.