Justin Verlander probably won't win the American League Cy Young Award, although he helped his case with a crucial effort on Sunday, allowing one run with 11 strikeouts over seven innings in the Houston Astros' 5-4 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Verlander leads the American League in innings pitched and strikeouts, and ranks fourth in ERA. His deficit in that category -- he's at 2.67 compared to Chris Sale at 1.92 and Blake Snell at 2.03 -- might make it difficult for voters to recognize his advantage in volume of work. Verlander has pitched 52 more innings than Sale and 38 more than Snell.
More importantly, Verlander has come up with big games down the stretch when the Astros most needed them, with the A's making a late push for a division title. In his past three starts, Verlander has pitched seven innings each time and allowed four runs while striking out 29 batters.
Combined with Oakland's 5-4 loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday, the Astros now lead the AL West by 4½ games, their biggest lead since Aug. 7. With 13 games remaining (and 12 for Oakland), it would take a monumental collapse for the Astros to blow the division lead. Indeed, FanGraphs gives them a 99.6 percent chance of winning the division (which seems a little high, but that's what the computer says).
Verlander's season is all the more remarkable since he's 35 years old. Maybe he's not quite at his 2011-12 peak, but he's close, on track to post the third-best ERA of his career (and third-best adjusted ERA) while leading the league in strikeouts for the fifth time and innings pitched for the fourth time. He has been dominant at times in his career, but he also has been durable, a trait just as important as a pitcher's velocity or ability to spin a curveball.
He has made 32 starts and has topped 30 each season of his career except 2015. He's at 2,747 career innings, a point where a lot of his contemporary aces have succumbed to injuries or other decline. Felix Hernandez is at 2,654 innings and is a shell of his former self. Roy Halladay made it to 2,749 innings, Cliff Lee to 2,156, Johan Santana to 2,025. Max Scherzer is at 2,103 and Clayton Kershaw at 2,078. Will they still be pitching at this level in three seasons?
Younger starters such as Noah Syndergaard and Stephen Strasburg have showed Verlander-like ability, but haven't been able to remain healthy enough to start building a Verlander-like Hall of Fame résumé. Appreciate the results, but also appreciate that Verlander is out their every fifth game churning out innings.
"Certainly, in the last couple of months this is his best start," Houston manager AJ Hinch said. "He's had some pretty good ones as an Astro. When he comes out and sets that kind of tone and gets those swings-and-misses and the strikeouts, it's a pretty special day for us."
Justin Verlander said reaching 200 innings again is big deal pic.twitter.com/mn14eXOm4m— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) September 16, 2018
Jacob deGrom versus Chris Sale: This was the first matchup between starting pitchers with at least 100 innings and a sub-2.00 ERA since Dwight Gooden faced John Tudor in September 1985, but we knew it wasn't really going to be a duel between the two aces since Sale was on a limited pitch count. He ended up throwing 42 pitches over three innings, allowing one hit with no walks and one strikeout, and probably has two more starts to get up to full strength.
Meanwhile, deGrom was excellent yet again, allowing three runs in seven innings with 12 strikeouts, the most for a visiting pitcher at Fenway since David Price had 13 in 2012. DeGrom did give up three runs in the third inning as Brock Holt hit a two-run homer off him:
Brocket launcher cannot be stopped rn. 💥 pic.twitter.com/rimS07yDfO— Boston Red Sox (@RedSox) September 16, 2018
We can run an entire list of superlatives for deGrom, but here's a good one: He now has reeled off 22 straight starts of at least six innings and three runs or fewer, the longest streak since 1900:
Jacob deGrom, 2017: 22
Johan Santana, 2004: 21
Mike Scott, 1986: 20
Jake Arrieta, 2015: 20
Josh Johnson, 2010: 19
Bob Gibson, 1968: 18
Thanks to ESPN researcher Sarah Langs for rounding up that one -- and a sad reminder of how good Josh Johnson was before injuries ruined his career. I think deGrom pretty much locked up the NL Cy Young Award with this, especially when combined with Scherzer's poor outing on Friday, when he gave up six runs in four innings.
Of course, in typical deGrom fashion he also ended up with a no-decision as the Red Sox eventually won 4-3, so he remains 8-9. The only pitcher to win a Cy Young Award with a sub-.500 record was Dodgers closer Eric Gagne, who was 2-3 in 2003.
Mookie leaves with injury, says he's OK: A minor scare for the Red Sox when Mookie Betts left in the sixth inning with left side soreness after making a throw home, the same injury that forced him to miss two weeks in late May and early June. After the game, Alex Cora said Betts was fine and should be in the lineup Tuesday against the Yankees, probably as the DH.
One thing to consider in the MVP race. Betts and Mike Trout have played 129 games. J.D. Martinez has played 140. Alex Bregman and Francisco Lindor have played 146 and Jose Ramirez 145. Should those missed games work against Betts? You can make that argument, although Betts still leads in WAR, even while playing 17 fewer games than Bregman and Lindor. In fact, those missed games are probably the only reason the MVP is still up for debate. Add on 17 games of production to Betts' season totals and he may be considered the unanimous winner.
No. 34 for No. 3⃣4⃣ pic.twitter.com/kO7vqcpf8B— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) September 16, 2018
Harper has quietly been great in the second half, hitting .311/.440/.572 -- after hitting .214 in the first half. There are two ways to look at that: (A) He's fine and proved he's still one of the best hitters in the majors; (B) The haters will say, sure, he started to hit better only because the Nationals were sort of out of the race and the pressure had subsided.
Hey, either theory may be right. For the season, Harper is still second in the NL with 34 home runs, first with 118 walks, fifth in OBP (.391) and seventh in OPS (.896). Are the numbers as good as his 2015 MVP season? No. Are they as good as 2017? No. There's no doubt, however, that the strong second half has to alleviate some of the concern after he hit .221 in May and .188 in June and kept hitting balls into the shift.
It also could be pointed out that Harper's .507 OBP in September is merely the result of hitting against those expanded September rosters -- except every game the Nationals have played this month has come against a contender (Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Phillies and Braves). Indeed, the weird thing about Harper's season is the lack of consistency in his approach. Look at his monthly unintentional walk and strikeout totals:
April: 30 BB, 21 SO
May: 10 BB, 28 SO
June: 16 BB, 33 SO
July: 17 BB, 35 SO
August: 10 BB, 26 SO
September: 21 BB, 14 SO
In April, Harper hit .247/.458/528 with eight home runs, and had a 42 percent swing rate and 24 percent chase rate. In May -- maybe feeling he needed to be more aggressive after hitting .247 -- those numbers increased to 52 percent and 33 percent. In September, he has been more patient than ever, with a 36 percent swing rate and 18 percent chase rate.
Harper's best attribute as a hitter isn't really his raw power, it's his ability to work the count. He's at his best when he's more patient and less aggressive and taking walks if pitchers are going to give them to him. I'm just not sure he actually understands that.