While the AL Cy Young has yet to be determined, there is a clear favorite in the race as we draw into the last month: Justin Verlander, and by Tom Tango’s Cy Young prediction points, he leads fellow Astro Gerrit Cole by 14.5 points. I’d say there’s a solid chance it continues in this direction, but I can also say that is incredibly strange for reasons I’ll outline.
Even if Verlander doesn’t touch the award, it’s up there as one of the most interesting single-season lines in recent history. Here’s a palette cleanser: since 1988 (that’s where I’ll be using the cutoff), here are seasons where a pitcher has recorded an ERA- under 65 and has had an HR/9+ over 110:
- Justin Verlander, 2019
Alright, maybe I was misleading you. There were two other seasons that hit the mark of 66, but it looked jaw-dropping the first time it appeared on my spreadsheet so I’m mirroring the reaction. The other two are former teammate Doug Fister in 2014, and Curt Schilling way back in 2001.
Fister wasn’t particularly like this season, in that, logically, FIP is going to suffer as a result of a high home run rate. Fister’s 66 ERA- was shadowed by a massive 107 FIP-, mostly because he struck out 5.38 per nine. Schilling’s season, though, is the closest in practice; at the height of the steroid era he allowed 1.3 home runs per nine, but had an ERA of just 2.98 and struck out 293 batters.
So, in a way, just like Schilling typified the steroid era with high-strikeout, high-home run numbers, Verlander is doing that now in the juiced ball era. It’s just incredibly, incredibly odd for Verlander’s FIP to not suffer as much as he does, and that’s because he strikes out 12 batters per nine.
When it comes to that, only a few more pitchers clear the threshold of the 110 HR/9+ and a FIP- below 80:
- 2001 Curt Schilling, 69 ERA-
- 2011 Zack Greinke, 75 FIP-
- 1990 David Cone, 76 FIP-
- 2016 Max Scherzer, 78 FIP-
- 2012 Cliff Lee, 79 FIP-
- 2019 Justin Verlander, 79 FIP-
- 2014 Stephen Strasburg, 80 FIP-
- 2009 Ricky Nolasco, 80 FIP-
Scherzer in 2016 is a fascinating one because it fits into a similar archetype; he also had a strikeout rate over 11, and that allowed him to have an excellent FIP despite the dingers. Scherzer, in that case, won the Cy Young Award, while Schilling, who otherwise typified the era but wasn’t technically the best pitcher, lost because a man named Randy Johnson existed.
Nonetheless this isn’t really about Verlander winning the award or being advocacy on his behalf, it’s merely noting that his season represents an endpoint of sabermetric thinking going back decades. Bill James argued (correctly) that groundball pitchers aren’t particularly useful as a model:
“Make a list of the best pitchers in baseball. Make a list of the best pitchers in baseball, in any era, and what you will find is that 80% of them are not ground ball pitchers. They’re fly ball pitchers... What I have never understood about ground ball pitchers, and do not understand now, is why they always get hurt... Derek Lowe was sensational in 2002; the rest of his career he’s a .500 pitcher. You take Derek Lowe; I’ll take Verlander.”
James makes the correct assumption that generally speaking, the best pitchers get a majority of their outs on fly balls. It’s also funny that he mentions Verlander six years ago, as he has run into the other maxim of launch angle.
Two trains collide on this season; the correct take that more strikeouts are good even if the lead to more fly balls or even home runs, along with hitters subsequently taking the track of trying to maximize those fly balls by trying to hit the ball in the air. The result is a HR/9 of 1.66, the sixth-highest in the league.
Does this mean it works for everyone? Of course not, and that’s why only Schilling could accomplish what he did in 2001; even in an era where technically both trends were potent at each time, really only a handful of pitchers fit into the mold of high-strikeout, high-home run while also being one of the best pitchers in the league. This time around it’s the Juiced Ball and how hitters have reacted to it, and Verlander, even as he started his career at the tail-end of the previous era, has come to embody the present one.