When Justin Verlander arrived in Houston, it was one of the biggest stories of last season. But as we set our sights on Opening Day, Verlander might not fade from the limelight just yet. In fact, after claiming his first World Series title, there's a sneaky case to be made for Verlander to collect more hardware by season's end -- namely, his second American League Cy Young Award.
The opposing arguments are obvious. Verlander celebrated his 35th birthday in February. There are also a couple aces named Corey Kluber and Chris Sale, and they figure to dominate again. But Verlander's environment, coupled with his own remarkable durability, could help him give those two a serious run. Below are five reasons to believe in Verlander's AL Cy Young Award candidacy as he prepares for his first full season as an Astro:
1. Verlander's stuff is as good as ever
Don't let Verlander's age fool you: His 95.3 mph average on fastballs in 2017 was his highest since '11 with the Tigers -- when he won his first AL Cy Young Award, along with the AL MVP Award. And one could argue he's employing that mid-90s fastball as effectively as he ever has.
The first three seasons of Statcast™ data show that four-seam fastballs thrown with high spin rates are typically harder for hitters to handle, thanks to the "rising" effect that spin generates. There were 128 starters who threw at least 500 four-seamers in 2017, and no one averaged a higher spin rate than Verlander at 2,541 rpm (the MLB average last year was 2,255 rpm). High-spin heaters perform best at the top of the strike zone, and Verlander was dominant when he climbed the ladder.
Lowest slugging percentage allowed on elevated four-seam fastballs* by a starting pitcher in 2017
Minimum 50 at-bats ending on elevated four-seamers
1.Robbie Ray: .204
2.Danny Salazar: .212
3. Justin Verlander: .217
4.Tanner Roark: .220
5. Brent Suter: .237
* Four-seamers thrown in Areas 1-3, 11-13 and 21-23 of Statcast™'s detailed strike zone
Verlander's slider became a much bigger weapon after the trade, as the Astros' analytics department helped him change his hand position to give the pitch more tilt. The adjustment paid huge dividends: batters hit Verlander's slider less (.243 average allowed with the Tigers, .160 with the Astros) and whiffed on it more (31.3 percent of swings with Detroit, 40.2 percent with Houston) to make the breaking ball an ideal complementary piece.
Now, Verlander takes his upgraded arsenal into Year 2 with the Astros' data team behind him for backup.
2. Verlander will have the traditional statistics voters love
Verlander put up 206 innings for the Tigers and Astros, marking the 10th time in the past 11 seasons he's surpassed the 200-inning plateau. Two-hundred-inning starters were a given when Verlander began that run, but they're becoming a rarer and rarer breed.
Verlander's age is the biggest reason to think he couldn't reach 200 innings again, but his body hasn't shown any outward signs of slowing down. Furthermore, the Astros' historically good lineup figures to give Verlander plenty of run support, which in turn could help him rack up 15 -- if not 20 -- victories if he pitches well. Innings and wins are two old-school stats still very much in vogue with Cy Young Award voters, and they could further enhance Verlander's throwback case.
3. Verlander gets better as the season goes on
Verlander was immediately special upon his Houston arrival, winning his first nine starts as an Astro, but he was already trending upward in his final month and a half with the Tigers. Overall, Verlander went 10-2 with 1.95 second-half ERA that finished second to Kluber (1.79) among those who made 15 starts after the All-Star Game. That was nearly identical to the league-best 1.96 ERA that Verlander recorded in the second half of 2016, and he's posted better numbers in the second halves of each of his past five seasons.
Verlander has made a pattern of getting stronger as the games matter more, and a second-half surge is exactly what pushed Kluber past Sale in last year's AL Cy Young Award vote. We could see Houston's ace do the same thing this summer.
4. Verlander will be pitching in friendlier confines
MLB.com's Mike Petriello recently explored why Detroit's Comerica Park is more hitter-friendly than you think, and the same metrics show Houston's Minute Maid Park could be a better environment for Verlander. For one, the excellent batter's eye at Comerica may have helped hitters see Verlander's pitches better; in his Tigers career, he struck out 22.5 percent of batters at home as compared to 23.2 percent on the road. Last year, Major League hitters recorded a .346 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) at Comerica, the highest in baseball, while their .304 xwOBA recorded at Minute Maid was the fourth lowest.
Since xwOBA looks at the moment of contact and not the outcomes that follow, this could mean that hitters see the ball better and generally feel more comfortable in Detroit than in Houston. While Verlander's time with the Astros was brief, his xwOBA allowed as a home pitcher at Minute Maid (.250) was much lower than in his starts at Comerica (.317).
5. There's not much pressure
Verlander (along with Jose Cabrera) was the face of the Tigers' franchise for years, but with the Astros, he's merely part of an embarrassment of riches. The veteran ace will soon get his long-awaited World Series ring, and he shares a rotation with a fellow AL Cy Young Award winner in Dallas Keuchel -- along with stalwarts Lance McCullers, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole. Verlander doesn't have to be brilliant every time he takes the mound, particularly with the team around him.
Of course, we've seen Verlander long enough to know he's not one to ever take things easy. He's brought his intensity to Spring Training games, compiling a miniscule 1.64 ERA and pairing 24 strikeouts with just two walks over his first five starts. As Verlander enters his first full season in orange and blue, he figures to be both focused and loose -- and that could be bad news for the rest of the AL.