Wednesday afternoon in Colorado, Justin Verlander will have center stage as he takes his final start before baseball’s waiver period expires. For well over a month now, the Tigers’ ace has pitched with a lot of extra eyes on him. Rumors continue to percolate that trade interest remains among at least a small set of teams. As recently as Tuesday, there were reports that at least two teams were still interested. Scouts from Houston have shadowed Verlander like a fan club for nearly two months. And they’ve generally gotten the show you’d expect.
However long it takes Verlander to get into high gear, season after season he eventually settles in to dominate the rest of the way.
Since 2013, a period that ignores what most would consider his prime years, and a period that includes his injury plagued 2014-2015 campaigns, Verlander has a combined ERA of 2.73 in the second half. This year is shaping up to be no different. For the 10th time in 11 seasons, Verlander is primed to clear 200 innings. And his ERA in the second half stands at 2.49.
Of course ERA only tells you so much even with a large sample size. It doesn’t predict very well. More meaningful is the .188 batting average against Verlander, backed by an expected batting average of .216 according to Statcast. Or the 28.8 percent strikeout rate. A walk rate of 6.3 percent after struggling mightily with his command earlier in the season. Just about all his peripherals speak to a pitcher locked into a dominant groove.
There is one real fly in the ointment though, and it’s a 3.78 FIP since the All-Star break, the result of giving up 1.47 home runs per nine innings. For the second straight season, Verlander’s fly ball based approach has suffered for the fact that 11 percent of his fly balls are leaving the yard. Not so bad when you get a lot of ground balls. Tougher when your fly ball rate is substantially over 40 percent.
The home runs have come in bursts. Things were trending much better in that regard after a few early season bouts of the long ball. But the Texas Rangers launched three bombs off Verlander on August 15th. A start like that sets one back a bit in terms of peripheral numbers. Verlander has now had three games this season in which he’s allowed three home runs.
A second half WHIP of 0.93 moderates the risk, as there just aren’t many baserunners even on the occasional off day when the home run ball bites him. Still, Verlander has probably been a little fortunate in that regard, and he comes with some risk that isn’t attached to more groundball based aces around the league.
Should the Astros or another mystery team pull the trigger on a Verlander trade, they’ll have to take their chances. The Rangers game was sandwiched between starts in which Verlander took no-hitters into the sixth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers. Taken as a set, you have an idea what you’re going to get. Multiple dominant performances, with the risk of a stinker thrown in.
However, even with that risk built in, there are several reasons why Verlander deserves the benefit of the doubt from interested parties. The history of strong finishes, season after season, speaks to the fact that we’re talking about the most dominant and durable flamethrower of his era. After all these years, and more pitches thrown than anyone in the game other than C.C. Sabathia, Verlander still has never had an arm injury, and his velocity has returned very close to its peak over the past year. Only once in a decade has he failed to pitch 200 innings in a season.
For a team considering the injury risk associated with taking on Verlander’s $28 million per year for two more seasons, we’re all in uncharted territory here. We didn’t have the same type of metrics available to evaluate someone like Nolan Ryan, for example. There just aren’t many comps in the history of the game for someone like Verlander, particularly in recent years. But the fastball velocity and elite spin rate, coupled with a long history of building velocity throughout each season, speak to an arm that is still far more trustworthy than any young gun out there.
When October arrives, Verlander is still one of the best bets in the game to be fresh and with an arsenal of pitches at full power. That’s the kind of security teams just can’t find in a pitcher anywhere else. He has the experience and a very good postseason record—World Series aside—to his credit. And in the years to come, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Verlander will continue to be a very good starting pitcher even when he finally reaches a point where his fastball velocity goes into decline.
So, last call for the Astros, or anyone else looking to bolster an injury plagued or fading rotation. It’s still hard to imagine a deal going down at this point. But teams will get one last look on Wednesday afternoon. For an appreciative fanbase, torn over whether to trade or keep Verlander, they may have just one look left as well.