BALTIMORE -- Justin Verlander wasn’t unhittable on Thursday night like he was in his first start back from the injured list, but that’s not what the American League West champion Astros need as they look toward another deep October run.
They just need Verlander to be Verlander. No restrictions. No injury concern. Full throttle.
Houston is confident that’s the case again after its 2-0 loss to the Orioles on a windy autumn night at Camden Yards, where the Astros’ inability to solve Kyle Bradish had more to do with them missing out on win No. 100 than anything Verlander did on the mound.
In holding the O’s to two runs over six innings in difficult pitching conditions, Verlander built up his pitch count back to normal levels (93 pitches, 70 strikes) and tested his recovered right calf several times fielding his position in his second start off the IL.
“He got his work in,” manager Dusty Baker said. “We’re very satisfied. On a normal night, that’s enough for us to win.”
“Not good, not bad,” was how Verlander described it.
That it resulted in Verlander’s fourth loss speaks to the high bar he’s set and the strength of his AL Cy Young case, which Verlander should have two more starts to pad before season’s end. Now that his health is no longer a question mark, let’s break that case down with a closer look:
The case for Verlander
Verlander already has two AL Cy Youngs to his credit and he finished second in the voting three other times. His case this year is based more on dominance than volume. He ranks 17th in innings (26 behind AL leader Shane Bieber). But Verlander leads the AL in wins (17), winning percentage, ERA+, WHIP (0.84) and hits per nine, and his sparkling 1.82 ERA is so far ahead of the field nothing else might even matter.
Even with its tiny bump against the Orioles, Verlander is still nearly one-third of a run ahead of the next closest starter -- White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease (2.13) -- in the race for the Majors’ ERA title. That gap is bigger than it seems. Assuming Verlander makes two more regular-season starts and throws five innings in each, he’d need to allow 38 earned runs for his season ERA to even eclipse 2.00.
Historically, the sub-2.00 ERA simply makes Verlander the heavy favorite. Put another way: If he finishes with MLB’s only sub-2.00 ERA in a full season and doesn’t win the Cy, Verlander would be the first starter to do that since Roger Clemens in 2005.
“He has a lot at stake,” Baker said. “He’s trying to win 20 [games]. Trying to win the ERA title. He’s in a position to win the Cy. We’re pulling for him. When you’re in that position, you want to go take it.”
The case against Verlander
Verlander’s late-August calf injury threatened to muddle his Cy Young case, but he rebounded well enough (1.64 ERA, 13-1 SO/BB ratio in two starts) to squash much of that chatter. But if voters look to nitpick something, it’ll probably be the volume lost by the two-plus weeks he missed due to the injury.
Verlander will likely finish with two to three fewer starts than Cease, Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah, who all entered play Thursday with (fractionally) higher WARs (depending on the calculation). That number is important, but not everything, to many contemporary voters.
So are strikeouts. And while Verlander’s 167 K’s and 9.22 strikeouts-per-nine are plenty impressive, both rank only 10th and sixth, respectively, among AL pitchers. He’s 69 total strikeouts behind AL leader Gerrit Cole.
Again: this is more of a volume issue than anything else for Verlander, who owns five league strikeout titles. Four came in years he did not win the Cy Young.
At this point, Verlander probably controls his own destiny as far as the Cy Young. But if Cease keeps up his otherworldly run (1.35 ERA over his past 21 starts), he could apply additional pressure. Rays lefty Shane McClanahan has faded in the second half and Astros rotation mate Framber Valdez emerged, on the strength of his exceptional workload. Elsewhere, Manoah and Gausman’s contributions to the playoff-bound Blue Jays can’t be ignored.
“I don't know if it's his to lose or not,” Baker said. “There are some guys who are in contention. But it would be big for him after missing a year and some change.”
At this moment, at least, Verlander looks like the clear frontrunner.
“You talk about what it means to our team and our organization, this guy probably four or five times stopped losing streaks and another four or five times goes out there when our bullpen is tired and gives me seven or eight innings,” Baker said. “That's a valuable man.”