One thing that future baseball historians might gloss over in looking at Justin Verlander’s career is the fact that when he left the Detroit Tigers in August 2017, he was not a slam-dunk Hall of Famer.
Superficially, Verlander’s overall career arc has been incredibly smooth: He was the second pick in the 2004 draft out of Old Dominion, a tall, broad-shouldered, handsome 21-year-old power righty with prototypical mechanics and an indestructible arm. Two years into his pro career, he was the best starting pitcher on the American League’s World Series representative. He threw his first no-hitter in 2007, and in 2011, he put in one of the most dominant seasons of the 21st century: a 34-start tour de force in which he led MLB in wins, ERA+, innings, strikeouts, and fewest hits allowed per nine innings. It was less a baseball season than a North American AC/DC tour, with Verlander shredding, shouting, and skipping his way through a series of stadium gigs over the course of six months. One of those gigs was his second no-hitter, a cherry on top of a season that earned Verlander his first and only Cy Young award. In 2012, he was once again the best pitcher on the AL champion, and between 2007 and 2013, he made six All-Star teams in seven seasons.
This past Sunday, Verlander threw a third no-hitter, a 14-strikeout stifling of the Toronto Blue Jays. That performance is a nice capstone for a late-career renaissance that was kickstarted by his World Series–winning performance in 2017, and has him poised to lead the Astros on another deep playoff run this season. If you look at Verlander’s career from a wide enough angle, he was an ace in 2006, and he’s still an ace in 2019. And that’s that.
But until recently, there were gaps in his CV, perhaps enough to scuttle his case for Cooperstown had his tenure in Houston gone differently. Verlander’s last few years in Detroit were rocky. He suffered lat and triceps injuries and hit the IL (then the DL) for the first time in 2015, shortly after leading the AL in earned runs allowed in 2014. He struggled to cope with setbacks, and even after bouncing back in 2016—when he came in second in Cy Young voting—there were still questions.
When a pitcher throws as many innings as Verlander had through age 30, sometimes his body just wears out. It doesn’t even take the kind of catastrophic shoulder injuries that derailed Johan Santana. Just look at Félix Hernández, Verlander’s most direct rival for AL pitching supremacy over the first half of his career. Hernández was a Cy Young runner-up with a 2.14 ERA in 2014 at age 28, an All-Star in 2015 at 29, and has been worth an aggregate of 0.8 bWAR in 448 innings since turning 30. When it goes, sometimes it goes quickly, and with relatively little warning.
That has, suffice it to say, not happened to Verlander since he joined the Astros. He, like so many pitchers Houston has acquired over the years, has tweaked his arsenal—with devastating results. Far from just surviving his mid-30s, Verlander has revitalized his career. And in the process, he’s redefined the terms of his Hall of Fame case.
Verlander’s peak stands up against any historical measuring stick: He was the best pitcher in baseball in 2011 and 2012, serving as the historical bridge from Roy Halladay to Clayton Kershaw, and during his 13 years in Detroit he won a Rookie of the Year award, a Cy Young, an MVP, four strikeout titles, and an ERA title. But a Hall of Fame case isn’t based on peak alone—longevity, measured by counting stats, matters as well.
That’s where Detroit-era Verlander fell a little short. He left the Tigers with 183 wins and 2,373 strikeouts in 2,511 innings pitched, which, considering how good he was in 2011 and 2012, might have been enough. But maybe not. Kevin Brown, who was as good as Verlander at his peak, had a slightly better ERA+ (127 to Verlander’s 123) in a career of more than 3,200 innings pitched and didn’t make it off the first ballot.
Verlander arrived in Houston with his career bWAR total at 55.5. There are 18 retired pitchers with between 50 and 60 career bWAR who played their entire careers in the integration era. (Well, 17 plus Billy Pierce, who pitched 10 innings as an 18-year-old in 1945 before returning to the majors in 1948.) Three of those 18 pitchers are in the Hall of Fame: Whitey Ford, who had a short career but got a boost from playing on the Mickey Mantle–Yogi Berra Yankees; Sandy Koufax, the ultimate high-peak Hall of Famer; and Mariano Rivera, a reliever.
Some of the other 15 are consistent Hall of Very Good guys. But others, like Bret Saberhagen and Orel Hershiser, had comparable peaks to Verlander and didn’t come close to getting in. Nor will Santana, who, despite winning two Cy Youngs, is close to 1,000 innings short of meeting longevity standards. Things change once a pitcher gets to 60 career bWAR: Of the 15 retired integration-era pitchers with between 60 and 70 bWAR, eight are in, as are eight of the nine pitchers with between 70 and 90 career bWAR. (The one exception, Curt Schilling, has not made it easy for voters to choose him on one of the most crowded ballots in Hall of Fame history.)
Given his Cy Young and MVP credentials, 60 bWAR would likely have been enough to get Verlander to Cooperstown. The only eligible integration-era Cy Young winners to hit 60 bWAR and not make it to the Hall of Fame are Roger Clemens, who’s one of the poster boys for the so-called steroid era, and David Cone, who threw fewer than 3,000 innings in his career. (The only integration-era Hall of Fame starters with fewer innings than Cone are Halladay, Koufax, and Pedro Martínez.)
All Verlander needed to do once he arrived in Houston was record a couple more solid seasons that would push him past a few basic counting thresholds: 60 bWAR, 2,500 strikeouts, 3,000 innings pitched. Most Hall of Fame pitchers have some kind of twilight phase, but for a few, that phase has been a key to their Hall of Fame case.
For example: Tom Glavine made his mark in his first stint with the Braves, when he won two Cy Youngs, a World Series MVP award, and posted a 123 ERA+ (exactly the same as Verlander’s in Detroit). But he solidified his case during a forgettable five-year run with the Mets, in which he posted an ERA+ of just 107, but made two more All-Star teams and recorded his 2,500th career strikeout and 300th career win. Not that this mattered to voters at the time, but it was with the Mets that Glavine crossed the 60- and 70-WAR thresholds. Saberhagen, Santana, and others have seen Verlander-like peaks go unrewarded in Hall of Fame voting for lack of a gentle, Glavine-like decline phase.
Verlander made his first start for the Astros two years and one day ago, on September 5, 2017. But in those 24 months, instead of just padding his career out, he’s completely redefined it. At age 36, Verlander is blowing away his previous career best for strikeout rate; after topping out at 10.1 K/9 as a Tiger—and striking out more than a batter an inning just three times in 13 seasons—Verlander has struck out 12 batters per nine innings as an Astro. And he’s walking just 1.6 batters per nine innings despite having never walked fewer than two batters per nine innings in Detroit.
According to Baseball Prospectus’s DRA-, the two best seasons of Verlander’s career so far have been 2018 and 2019, with his Cy Young–winning campaign coming third. Since moving to Houston, Verlander has thrown his slider more and his changeup less than he had as a Tiger, and his fastball is as quick as ever, with more vertical movement than we’ve seen from him before.
As late-career reinventions go, he’s blown past Glavine with the Mets and even Halladay with the Phillies. It’s now fair to wonder whether 2009 to 2013 is actually Verlander’s peak after all, or if what he’s accomplished with the Astros since September 2017 is really the highlight of his career. In terms of combined performance in age-35 and -36 seasons, Verlander—with three weeks to go in the season—has surpassed all post-integration starters except Randy Johnson in strikeouts and ERA+. He also has an outside chance of reaching 3,000 strikeouts this season—he’s 37 short with three or four starts left in the campaign—and if he plays out his two-year contract extension without crashing and burning, he’ll probably get to 250 career wins sometime in 2021, his age-38 season.
But Verlander’s Houston encore has done more for his Hall of Fame case than just burnishing his statistical credentials—it’s also been incredibly important from a narrative perspective. For as much of a fixture as Verlander was in the postseason over the first decade of his career, his actual performances in October were inconsistent. Sprinkled in among a few gems—in three starts in the 2013 postseason, he gave up one run total—were losses in all three of his World Series starts with Detroit, two of them ugly ones.
In 2017, he won two games in each of the first two rounds, including a potentially series-saving relief appearance at Fenway Park in Game 4 of the ALDS and MVP-level outings in the ALCS, in which he threw a complete Game 2 and recorded seven scoreless innings in a win-or-go home Game 6. He not only finally got his hands on a ring, but he put the Astros on his back to get there.
This season, in addition to having as good a chance as anyone of winning another title, Verlander could also win a second Cy Young. Perhaps the most astounding thing about Verlander’s career is that he has only one, despite coming within spitting distance of taking home three others (only Clemens, Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Steve Carlton have won four).
Verlander came in second in Cy Young voting in 2012, 2016, and 2018. In 2012 he lost to David Price, whom he clearly outpitched, and in 2016 he lost to Rick Porcello, whom he also clearly outpitched. In those seasons, he earned more first-place votes than any two other candidates put together. And last year, he finished a close second to Blake Snell in a paradigm-shifting vote that cemented the modern game’s demand for quality over quantity. (If I’d had a vote, I would have voted for Snell over Verlander last year.)
In his one Cy Young–winning season, 2011, Verlander took home all 28 first-place votes and beat second-place Jered Weaver on total points, 196 to 97. In the three seasons in which he finished second, Verlander amassed 40 first-place votes, while the eventual winners (Snell, Porcello, and Price) picked up a total of 39. On total points, Verlander lost 153-149 in 2012, 137-132 in 2016, and 169-154 in 2018. Cy Young elections just don’t come closer than that.
A second award wouldn’t erase the (admittedly low-stakes) historical injustice of those three previous close losses, but that total would be a better reflection of Verlander’s overall achievements. Of course, Verlander could very well suffer a fourth agonizingly close loss this season—most likely to his Houston teammate Gerrit Cole, who trails Verlander slightly in innings and ERA+, but is on pace to break the single-season K/9 record.
The good news for Verlander is that he doesn’t need any more hardware to make a solid case for Cooperstown. At this point, he’d be in on the first ballot even if he never throws another pitch. The only question before him is how far up the historical ladder he’ll climb before he’s done.