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Verlander-Cole may be most dominant duo ever

Astros pair could make history with 1-2 finish in ERA, WHIP, K's
@mattkellyMLB
September 7, 2019

Barring a major blip over the next three weeks, the American League’s top two pitchers by ERA will reside in Houston. So will the Major Leagues' top two strikeout leaders, and its top two starters by WHIP. Any way you slice it, and with all due respect to the excellent

Barring a major blip over the next three weeks, the American League’s top two pitchers by ERA will reside in Houston. So will the Major Leagues' top two strikeout leaders, and its top two starters by WHIP.

Any way you slice it, and with all due respect to the excellent Charlie Morton, the AL’s Cy Young Award race comes down to Astros aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. Together, they’re poised to become just the second pair of starters to finish first and second in a Cy Young race while pitching a full season for the same team, following the D-backs’ tandem of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2001 and ’02. (Dodgers righty Mike Marshall won the NL Cy Young in 1974 as a reliever, with L.A. starter Andy Messersmith placing second. Sal Maglie finished runner-up to the Dodgers' Don Newcombe after he was traded to Brooklyn during the '56 campaign.)

Verlander and Cole’s dominance this season is starting to feel a lot like the way Johnson and Schilling completely overwhelmed hitters 17 years ago, and the Houston duo could accomplish something even more rare than finishing 1-2 in the Cy vote: The duo is on the verge of doing something we haven't seen since baseball began expanding in 1961, finishing 1-2 in their league in ERA, WHIP and K's.

Verlander’s no-hitter Sunday and Cole’s one-run gem Monday, the first time in Major League history that pitchers struck out 14 or more hitters in back-to-back team games, provided the latest glimpse of this duo’s excellence. The pair are trading possession of the MLB strikeout crown, with both more than 20 punchouts clear of Cleveland's Shane Bieber, who is in third place. Verlander’s WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is down to 0.77, rivaling Pedro Martinez in 2000 (0.74) for the lowest since 1961 (aka the "Expansion Era"), while Cole is right behind him at 0.95. And Morton and teammate Wade Miley are a quarter-run behind Verlander and Cole in the AL ERA race.

It’s not completely unprecedented for teammates to claim the top two spots in their league any one of these three categories: It’s happened 12 times in league ERA standings during the Expansion Era, per the Elias Sports Bureau, six times in the MLB strikeout standings and once in the MLB WHIP race. But Verlander and Cole could be the first teammates to top all three leaderboards in their league in one season.

(Note: We’re narrowing comparisons here to the Expansion Era, beginning in 1961, as baseball was integrated and featured a larger field of teams by then.)

Johnson and Schilling came the closest to this "Triple Crown," topping the NL ERA and MLB strikeout leaderboards in 2001 but just missing in WHIP (Johnson was first, Schilling was third). If the season ended today, Cole and Verlander’s rate stats look just as dominant -- if not slightly more stifling -- as Arizona’s vaunted pair.

Johnson/Schilling ('01): 2.74 ERA, 11.8 K/9, 1.04 WHIP
Cole/Verlander ('19): 2.68 ERA, 12.7 K/9, 0.86 WHIP

Here are five more mind-boggling statistics you should know about what this duo is accomplishing in the Lone Star State:

• As mentioned, Verlander is neck-and-neck with peak Martinez for the Expansion Era’s lowest single-season WHIP, and the same goes for on-base percentage. If the season ended today, Verlander’s .212 OBP against would nip Martinez’s 2000 season by a single point. To put that in perspective, MLB hitters have combined for a higher OBP in two-strike counts this season.

• Verlander’s 33 home runs allowed are perhaps the only blemish on his Cy Young resume, and it certainly does stand out next to his other statistics. But Verlander has been remarkable at damage control: Twenty-seven of those 33 homers were solo shots, and Elias says that puts him just behind Schilling in rare company this century. Though it stands to reason that if you aren't letting anyone on base, the homers you do allow will be of the solo variety.

Highest pct. of HR allowed as solo HR (min. 30 total HR), since 2000
1) Curt Schilling (‘01): 83.8% (31 of 37)
2) Verlander (’19): 81.8% (27 of 33)
3) Darrell May (‘03): 80.6% (25 of 31)
4) Ramon Ortiz (‘02): 80.0% (32 of 40)

*Source: Elias Sports Bureau

• Both Cole and Verlander have set the standard for combatting hitters’ recent air-ball sensibilities with high heat, pumping their elite-velocity, elite-spin four-seamers at the top of the strike zone. But Cole in particular is reaching new heights with that approach: His opponents have mustered just 10 hits in 137 at-bats ending on his elevated four-seam fastball (defined by Statcast as the top-third of the zone and above), while striking out 85 times. We’ll do the math for you -- that’s a microscopic .073 batting average against Cole’s high cheese.

• Cole has struck out 38.7% of the batters he’s faced this year, on pace for the highest single-season strikeout rate in modern history. While it’s true that strikeouts are rising across the game (this will mark the 12th straight season in which Major Leaguers set a new punchout record), Cole is still standing head and shoulders above the pack. Per FanGraphs, Cole’s adjusted strikeout rate is on track to be the highest against the MLB average since 2007, when the Orioles’ Erik Bedard tallied a 30.2% strikeout rate and the league’s K rate was just 17.1%.

• Last year, Cole and Verlander helped the Astros join those 2001-02 D-backs as just the third team in modern history with two 275-plus strikeout pitchers, and with each pitcher likely to make at least four more starts, there’s a chance they could be the first teammates to each tally 300 K’s together.

None of these statistics guarantee that the Astros can ride their co-aces to a World Series title like Arizona did in 2001. The Red Sox were able to beat both Cole and Verlander in last year’s AL Championship Series. But there’s no disputing that Houston will have the best Game 1 and 2 starters on paper.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.