Astros' Justin Verlander back in Cy Young form so far in 2022
By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer
On Tuesday against the Mariners, Justin Verlander struck out 12 across seven masterful innings as the Astros won 4-1, marking their 27th victory in their previous 32 games against Seattle at Minute Maid Park.
From the first pitch, it was apparent that Verlander was on a mission to shut down the Mariners and reassert his dominance less than two weeks removed from allowing six runs to Seattle in his worst start of the season so far.
It was vintage Verlander, the kind of performance that loudly reminded everyone watching why he’s one of the greatest to ever do it.
At 39, Verlander is the seventh-oldest active player on an MLB roster:
* Albert Pujols (DOB: 1/16/80)
* Rich Hill (DOB: 4/11/80)
* Nelson Cruz (DOB: 7/1/80)
* Adam Wainwright (DOB: 8/30/81)
* Yadier Molina (DOB: 7/13/82)
* Darren O’Day (DOB: 10/22/82)
* Justin Verlander (DOB: 2/20/83)
* Sergio Romo (DOB: 3/4/83)
* Miguel Cabrera (DOB: 4/18/83)
During the offseason, I wrote about Verlander’s impending return from Tommy John surgery and the complete lack of historical precedent for a starting pitcher this good who throws this hard getting UCL surgery at this age and returning to peak form. In some senses, the fact that we’d never seen it made me think that Verlander — if anyone — could do it. But I also had to respect the decades of history suggesting that we shouldn’t count on anything.
Still, I was curious: Could we really see that 2019 version of Verlander again? Or would returning to an elite level be too much to expect of someone his age?
Well, 11 starts into his comeback season, it’s difficult to believe Verlander was gone for any time at all. In fact, aside from a few minor differences, it’s almost eerie how little has changed.
His numbers are once again some of the best in the American League:
* 2019: 2.58 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 0.803 WHIP, .171 BAA, 35.4% strikeout rate, 5.0% walk rat
* 2022: 2.13 ERA, 3.44 FIP, 0.837 WHIP, .182 BAA, 27.0% strikeout rate, 5.2% walk rate
His repertoire? Fewer changeups but otherwise basically the same:
* 2019: 49.9% fastball (94.7 mph), 28.4% slider (87.6 mph), 17.5% curveball (79.5 mph), 4.2% changeup (87.0 mph)
* 2022: 48.7% FB (94.8 mph), 31.0% SL (87.3 mph), 19.0% CB (78.5 mph), 1.4% CH (85.4 mph)
The kinds of batted balls he’s allowing? Awfully similar:
* 2019: 18.9% line drive, 35.9% ground ball, 45.2% fly ball
* 2022: 19.1% line drive, 37.1% ground ball, 43.8% fly ball
In essence, Verlander picked up right where he left off.
Plus, unlike Hill and Wainwright — the two starters his senior who long ago accepted their reality as crafty soft-tossers — Verlander can still light up the radar gun when he wants to. His eighth strikeout Tuesday came on a 96.9 mph fastball to Eugenio Suárez, which was tied for the seventh-hardest pitch Verlander has thrown this season. His highest velo of the season is 98.3 mph, which came back on May 15 vs. Washington.
Now, Verlander’s heater is not quite as hot as it used to be. At its flamethrowing peak in 2009, his average fastball velocity was 95.6 mph, 58.6% of his heaters clocked in faster than 96 mph, and he touched 100 mph. In 2017, 33.8% of his fastballs were 96 mph or higher.
This season, just 11.1% of Verlander’s heaters have registered via Statcast at 96 mph or higher — but that’s right in line with the 10.9% mark he posted in 2019, which was plenty good enough for him to win another Cy Young Award. We might not see triple digits from him anymore, but 97 mph is clearly still in the tank; he’s just accessing it far more sparingly.
It’s also worth noting that Verlander hadn’t recorded a double-digit strikeout game in 2022 prior to Tuesday’s outing against Seattle. His 27% strikeout rate is still very good, but it’s not in the top 15 of qualified starters.
And while his pure stuff appears to be nearly identical to what it was in 2019, batters have been making much more contact against Verlander this season. Opposing hitters have a 79.1% contact rate on swings, which would be the highest mark Verlander has allowed since 2015. Hitters are also simply swinging more than ever against him, especially on pitches in the zone: The 77.3% Z-Swing% and 53.4% overall swing% are both career highs.
Yet the results have remained positive because Verlander has an excellent defense behind him and still induces plenty of weak contact. You could point at his MLB-low BABIP against of .216 and say he has been lucky, but his MLB-low BABIP against of .218 in 2019 would suggest that this is just part of what Verlander is able to do at this stage of his career.
He might not throw quite as hard or rack up quite as many K’s, but he’s still tremendous at the most important part of his job: getting outs. He’s leading the American League in innings pitched, he has a 2.13 ERA with an MLB-leading 0.837 WHIP, and he’s striking out about a batter per inning, even with the decline in whiffs.
Verlander might not win the AL Cy Young again — though he might end up with a pretty strong case — but he is still undeniably excellent.
What’s more, Verlander’s 12 strikeouts Tuesday against Seattle helped him surpass Max Scherzer and John Smoltz on the all-time strikeout list. He’s now 17th, with 3,086 K’s in his regular-season career, and he’ll continue to pass current and future Hall of Famers throughout the remainder of this season.
In fact, he could realistically catch CC Sabathia (3,093), Curt Schilling (3,116), Bob Gibson (3,117), Pedro Martinez (3,154) and Fergie Jenkins (3,192) in 2022, which would land him 12th heading into his age-40 season. Verlander’s ascension up that list won’t stop there, of course; he’s on record saying he wants to pitch until he’s 45.
And from what we’ve seen so far in 2022, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be able to do just that.
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He lives in D.C. but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he doesn't get a lot of sleep. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.