Image credit: Justin Verlander (Photo by Cooper Neil/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
John Smoltz knows a thing or two about limiting hard contact. He allowed a lower opponent average in the 1990s than any starting pitcher but Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, David Cone, Roger Clemens or Curt Schilling.
But even Smoltz couldn’t help gushing about the Astros’ Justin Verlander during the FS1 broadcast of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series pitting Houston against the Yankees.
“It’s hard to find an average that starts with a ‘2,’ ” said Smoltz on the telecast, referring to Verlander’s historic season in which he limited hits and baserunners like few starting pitchers in history.
Verlander in 2019 recorded the third-lowest WHIP and fifth-lowest opponent average in the modern era, dating back to the formation of the American League in 1901. The names surrounding him on the lists—Martinez, Walter Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux—signify everything.
Verlander also posted historically low batting averages with runners on base and against lefthanded batters. (See the table below for full details. An asterisk denotes a Hall of Famer.)
|Lowest Opponent Average
|Lowest Average With Runners On
|Lowest AVG Allowed By RH Starter To LH Batters
Verlander was no slouch when he had the platoon advantage. The 36-year-old righthander allowed a .182 average to righthanded hitters. While that is the 72nd stingiest mark ever, it just wasn’t as historic as his other achievements, which include leading the major leagues with 21 wins, 223 innings, a .172 opponent average and 0.80 WHIP.
Additionally, Verlander led all major league pitchers with 7.8 wins above replacement, the Baseball-Reference.com version. He placed second only to Astros co-ace Gerrit Cole with 300 strikeouts, while his 2.58 ERA was fourth-lowest in the majors but second-best in the DH league only to Cole.
For Verlander’s singular 2019 season, in which he helped propel the Astros to a major league high 107 wins, he is the Baseball America Major League Player of the Year.
Verlander had plenty of help in Houston. The Astros’ airtight defense helped Houston pitchers yield a .270 batting average on balls in play, the lowest in the majors. Astros hitters led the majors in on-base percentage (.352) and slugging (.495) while striking out the fewest times.
Even the Houston bullpen did all it could to preserve leads for Verlander. The Astros’ relief corps finished with a 3.75 ERA that ranked just a few points behind the Rays for the best in baseball.
More to the point, any team that wins 107 games has received contributions up and down the roster, and a pair of Astros—righthander Gerrit Cole and third baseman/shortstop Alex Bregman—were also worthy POY candidates whom we considered for our award. That’s not to mention second baseman Jose Altuve, our 2017 POY who was MVP of this year’s ALCS.
But Verlander’s overall body of work gave him a boost. Because his greatness is not limited to 2019, nor is it limited to the regular season.
When Verlander struck out his 3,000th career batter in his final start of 2019, he effectively punched his ticket to Cooperstown. Every eligible pitcher with 3,000 strikeouts is enshrined in the Hall of Fame, except for special cases Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling.
Verlander also notched his 225th career win in his final start of 2019. That total doesn’t sound historically high, but he trails only 39-year-old CC Sabathia (251) among pitchers who debuted in the 2000s.
Furthermore, few pitchers in history have been asked to shoulder a heavier October load than Verlander, who has been front and center for nine postseason rotations between his time with the Tigers and Astros. Only once has Verlander’s club been knocked out in the first round, and four times he has helped pitch his team to the World Series—in 2006 and 2012 with Detroit and 2017 and 2019 with Houston.
In fact, he ranks all time in career postseason innings. The top 10:
The data shows that not only is Verlander one of the most durable starters in postseason history—when every inning is high leverage—but he is one of the most effective. His 1.07 WHIP ranks seventh among pitchers with 10 or more postseason starts, while his 14 wins rank third to Andy Pettitte and Smoltz.
Verlander stands alone with 205 strikeouts, which he achieved when—in a fitting passing of the torch—he passed Smoltz in Game 2 of the World Series while Smoltz was on the mic.
Our Major League Player Of The Year Runners-Up
• Alex Bregman, 3B/SS, Astros
Bregman launched 41 home runs and led the majors with 119 walks while hitting .296/.423/.592. He ranked second in the majors with 8.4 WAR and fifth with a 162 OPS+.
• Gerrit Cole, RHP, Astros
Cole led the majors with 326 strikeouts and a 185 ERA+. He ranked second with 20 wins and an 0.90 WHIP, third with a 2.50 ERA and fifth among pitchers with 6.9 WAR.
• Mike Trout, OF, Angels
Trout didn’t play after Sept. 7 but still ranked fifth in the majors with 45 homers and first with a 185 OPS+. He hit .291/.438/.645 and produced 8.3 WAR to rank third in baseball.