By: Alexander Eustace
With the World Series in full swing, and featuring several star-studded pitching matchups, it seems fitting to reflect on the league’s best pitchers throughout the regular season. The AL Cy Young race, in particular, features Astros teammates Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole on top, with Rays right-hander Charlie Morton trailing right behind them. Given the dominance of both Verlander and Cole, it may not be fair to call either one the “unquestioned leader” of Houston’s staff. However, as evidenced by both traditional and modern statistics, Verlander has a stronger case to collect his 2nd career Cy Young Award and his first since 2011.
Before delving into his case, it is necessary to acknowledge that Verlander, like the majority of pitchers this season, has experienced an unprecedented rise in home runs allowed. Regardless of the cause – which he himself believes to be a “juiced ball” – Verlander has allowed an astonishing 36 home runs on the year, tied for 2nd in the AL with Seattle’s Yusei Kikuchi. His 1.45 HR/9 rate is the highest of his career, albeit only slightly higher than the league average of 1.4. On top of that, his HR/FB rate has spiked to 16.0%, up from 11.1% last year, showing that he has struggled to keep the ball in the yard.
History has proven that any pitcher in his age-36 season must adjust in order to stay in the league, much less in vintage form. Verlander has done just that, decreasing his fastball usage by 11.3% in favor of his secondary offerings: a wipeout slider and a devastating curve that clocks in over 15 mph slower than his 4-seamer. Despite a slight decline in fastball velocity this year, his arsenal has seemingly held up. Opponents have swung at 37.2% of pitches outside the zone when facing Verlander, and his slider ranks as one of the most valuable pitches in all of baseball by FanGraphs’ “slider runs above average” metric.
The result of Verlander’s new approach is yet another dominant season. Despite his aforementioned home run troubles, he has posted a 21-6 record with a sparkling 2.58 ERA across 223 innings, only marginally higher than Cole’s mark of 2.50. Although the two are equally affected by pitching half their games in a hitters’ park, it is worth noting that Verlander’s 2.34 home ERA is almost half a run lower than his 2.82 ERA on the road. The fact that he has performed better in the close confines of Minute Maid Park suggests that when he does allow home runs, he’s managed to limit the damage.
Other rate stats paint a similar picture. Verlander’s 0.803 WHIP and 5.5 H/9 are both the best in the majors, and his 7.14 K/BB ratio paces the Junior Circuit. In all, Verlander is as dominant as ever, if not the best he’s ever been.
Under ordinary circumstances, this would be an open-and-shut case. Of course, this has been no ordinary season for Astros pitchers, who have not one but two obvious Cy Young contenders in Verlander and Cole (and they would have had three, had Zack Greinke spent the entire year in Houston). Cole finished the year with a 20-5 record in 212.1 innings across 33 starts. He also compiled a league-leading 326 strikeouts, compared to an even 300 from Verlander. In addition, Cole’s 2.64 Fielding Independent Pitching is a career-best, and much closer to his actual ERA than Verlander’s 3.27, suggesting that he would be the better pitcher if we focused on the “three true outcomes” of home runs, walks, and strikeouts, the things a pitcher has the most control over.
While it appears the two are neck and neck, Verlander has an edge over Cole in most categories. The former leads the league in wins, innings pitched, opponents’ batting average, WHIP and BABIP, while Cole leads in ERA and strikeouts. It could also be argued that Verlander has been more consistent, with only one month in which his ERA was over 3.00 (a 4.02 mark in August). On the other hand, Cole had a slow start to the season, going 4-5 with a 4.11 ERA over his first 11 starts before finding another gear the rest of the way. The end result is that Verlander has accumulated 7.8 bWAR, whereas Cole has amassed 6.8 bWAR.
The decision will certainly not be an easy one for voters. In the end, though, Verlander has had the more dominant season, and he is, therefore, more deserving of the American League’s Cy Young Award.