Since Kris Bryant fielded the last out of the 2016 World Series, the best teams in baseball have loaded up on MLB talent, engaging in an ever-increasing arms race. Last winter, Boston traded for Chris Sale and Cleveland signed Edwin Encarnácion; at last month’s non-waiver trade deadline, the Cubs added José Quintana and the Dodgers acquired Yu Darvish. And on Thursday night, minutes before the last deadline of the 2017 season, the Astros completed a trade for Tigers right-hander and juiced ball truther Justin Verlander, adding an instant top-of-the-rotation starter as they prepare their October roster.
Houston has led the AL West by double-digit games since May, and while the Astros could be forgiven for coasting since then with that advantage, their recent spate of play was a postseason concern. The Astros are just 20-24 since the All-Star break, and their lead for home-field advantage in the AL playoffs has dwindled to just 3.5 games as of Thursday night. Cleveland is red hot and Boston’s roster is the strongest it’s been all season, while Houston has scuffled to a sub-.500 record for a full two months now.
Specifically as it relates to the Astros’ suspect pre-trade pitching staff, the following statistic is even more alarming. Entering Thursday’s games, the six division leaders were ranked as follows by starter ERA since the All-Star break:
- Nationals, first in MLB (2.93)
- Indians, second (3.10)
- Cubs, third (3.36)
- Dodgers, fourth (3.48)
- Red Sox, fifth (3.52)
- Astros, 19th (4.89)
One of these things is not like the others, and while Houston’s rotation has fared better by more advanced metrics (top 10 in both FIP and xFIP), it’s understandable that GM Jeff Luhnow would have been worried about his team’s ability to compete with the other contenders’ top-tier rotations in October. The worst part for Houston is that its best arms—the ones theoretically slated to start the first two games of a playoff series—have been the chief culprits. Astros ace Dallas Keuchel has a 5.35 ERA and 4.68 FIP since returning from the disabled list in late July, with only three quality starts in seven turns; Lance McCullers is still on the DL with back problems and had an ERA north of 9 in July, when he last pitched. Even given the team’s unique staff construction, with a bunch of multi-inning guys who could excel à la Cleveland’s Andrew Miller in the playoffs (Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, and others), firming up the rotation was a necessity, and the team’s only move at the July deadline was adding Francisco Liriano as a bullpen LOOGY.
Enter Verlander, who despite his early-season struggles has returned to acehood—again—in recent weeks. Over his past 11 starts, he boasts a 2.31 ERA and .253 opponents’ weighted on-base average, both marks ranking fifth among starters (minimum 50 innings) over that span. That stretch includes a 6.2-inning, one-run outing against Cleveland; a six-inning shutout against Houston; and an eight-inning, one-run effort against the Dodgers. Verlander’s strikeout-minus walk rate has improved from 10.3 percent before July 8 to 21.9 percent since, and his peripheral indicators (increased chase and swinging-strike rates, plus a peaking fastball velocity) all point to a different and much better pitcher than the one who took the mound for Detroit in the first three months of the season.
Verlander’s acquisition doesn’t come risk-free for Houston, which takes on two years and $40 million of salary, in addition to the handful of millions left this season, for a 34-year-old pitcher who has exhibited periodic signs of decline in recent seasons. (He also has a 2020 option that vests if he places in the top five of 2019’s Cy Young vote.) The three prospects Houston surrendered aren’t nobodies, either, as is typically the case in August salary dumps: Right-hander Franklin Perez rates as the Astros’ no. 3 prospect, per MLB.com, while outfielder Daz Cameron (ninth) and catcher Jake Rogers (11th) both could become big league contributors down the road for a rebuilding Tigers team.
But for the Astros, the trade wasn’t about prospect concerns, or what Verlander’s fastball speed might be in 2019, or even how he’ll fit into next year’s rotation amid a host of young arms. Verlander represents the team’s greatest win-now move in recent memory—a literal last-minute gamble designed only with the playoffs in mind for a team practically guaranteed an October berth that needed to secure just a few extra, elite innings in a short series. Verlander probably should have won the Cy Young Award last year, and he’s pitched at that level for the past two months. Now he’s a leading candidate to take that rubber arm and blazing fastball into Game 1 of a playoff series.