When Houston Astro fans reflect on the 2017 season, most will likely view the late-season acquisition of Justin Verlander as a transformative moment in franchise history.
Including the postseason, Verlander posted a 1.67 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 70 innings with Houston winning 10 of the 11 game appearances. Most importantly, the Astros won their first World Series title with the right-hander leading the charge.
Verlander’s immediate impact in Houston and the national exposure he received during the postseason prompted some talking heads and fans to declare he is already a Hall of Famer.
That sentiment is understandable and probably shared by fans in Detroit, where Verlander spent the entirety of his career before coming to Houston on August 31. However, the notion he has already earned a plaque in Cooperstown is not grounded in reality.
Sure, the former Cy Young award winner and league MVP has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since debuting in 2005. But his body of work does not scream Hall of Famer.
Not yet, at least.
Non-Hall of Famers
The trio finished their respective careers with similar stat lines to what the former Old Dominion Monarch currently has. Yet, each lasted just one Hall election cycle after receiving less than five-percent of the vote.
|One And Done HOF Candidates|
Some may suggest Verlander’s Cy Young and MVP honors, plus his postseason success will be difference-makers. Those extraordinary accomplishments will certainly register with voters, but comparable feats did not help two of the players listed above.
Saberhagen was a two-time Cy Young winner and a World Series MVP. Cone, also a Cy Young recipient, earned five World Series rings with two clubs. Despite these notable deeds, the duo received little-to-any notice from voters.
A Man Among Men
A segment of Verlander proponents may contend he has been one of the most dominant pitchers in the game for over a decade. The three players just mentioned were not. True, the 13-year veteran has been elite for a sustained period; this has historically mattered to voters.
Having said that, Verlander does not stand head-and-shoulders above his contemporaries; another trait important to the electorate.
|Top-10 Active SPs (Based on WAR)|
Verlander’s numbers are superb, but the same can be said about the trio of thirty-somethings surrounding him on the preceding table. None of them is receiving the same Cooperstown fanfare as the native Virginian.
Zack Greinke has approximately the same mound time as Verlander and has produced strikingly similar value.
Until injuries and ineffectiveness derailed Felix Hernandez during the last two years, his productivity was equal to or better than Verlander’s.
Although Cole Hamels does not receive the attention afforded Greinke and Hernandez, he has provided relatively similar value during his 12-year career. I am not suggesting the southpaw is superior or will have a better overall career, but he is somewhat close to Verlander.
CC Sabathia is the graybeard of the group. It is not likely his Hall of Fame stock significantly improves between now and when he retires. However, it is plausible the lefty continues to prove valuable for several more years.
Still, the brightest star of all belongs to the youngest pitcher listed — Clayton Kershaw. He is already a three-time Cy Young winner and two-time runner-up, plus a league MVP. Most consider the southpaw the best of his generation.
The dominance of Kershaw does not necessarily torpedo other Hall candidacies. However, the Verlander camp cannot claim he was preeminent during his era.
For this reason, adding length and more results to his fine career will distinguish Verlander from peers he will eventually be competing with for Hall votes.
Since it is clear Verlander needs to do more, reviewing the career totals of recently enshrined starting pitchers might help determine what he must accomplish going forward.
The following are full-time starters selected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America over the last two decades.
|Recently Elected HOF Starters|
As you can see, Verlander lags well behind in terms of WAR with the closest players being Tom Glavine and Don Sutton. While the 34-year-old fares better from an ERA+ and SO/9 perspective, his overall record pales when compared to all recent inductees.
The fact Verlander trails these great pitchers should not come as a surprise. After all, the group averaged 279 more starts more than his 385 outings. The only person relatively close in terms of career workload was Pedro Martinez. Even the most ardent Verlander supporter would likely admit Pedro was a cut above their man.
The Next Wave
Clearly, a gap exists between Verlander and those recently enshrined. How does he stack up to the current generation of candidates?
The following lists the most prominent starters currently on the ballot and those set to appear soon. Once again, Verlander brings up the rear.
|Current and Future HOF Candidates|
Statistically speaking, Roger Clemens should already be in the Hall. However, PED accusations from his playing days cast a shadow over his candidacy. Clemens’ vote tally has been climbing, but there is a segment of writers who will never vote for the seven-time Cy Young award winner.
Curt Schilling appears to be paying the price for divisive comments made in recent years. That aside, he possesses Hall of Fame credentials and will probably be elected before his eligibility ends.
Mike Mussina is not controversial. Furthermore, his 82.7 WAR bests notable Hall of Famers Bob Gibson (81.9), Glavine (74), Sutton (68.7), and Jim Palmer (68.1). Yet, the right-hander’s vote share fell 17 points short of the 75-percent required for induction last year.
For this reason, the Hall of Fame fate of Mussina and Schilling may provide clarity to the electorate’s stance on starters from this century. Neither reached the fabled 300-win milestone nor did they win a Cy Young. But both men possess impressive career records buoyed by new-age metrics.
While justifying Verlander’s current Hall worthiness is problematic, that does not mean he cannot get there from here. There is a realistic path leading to a Cooperstown induction speech.
Hopefully, he will not bloody a sock along the way.
The Verlander Solution
For the moment, assume Verlander needs to match or exceed the career production of Mussina and Schilling to guarantee enshrinement. Here is where the duo stood after their age-34 season in contrast to the former Tiger.
|Through Age-34 Season|
Fans in Detroit and Houston should be encouraged. While Mussina had a commanding lead in terms of WAR, Schilling was behind Verlander’s current pace.
It is worth noting Schilling had substantially fewer innings and starts than Verlander through his age-34 season. The retired star was predominantly a reliever at the onset of his career.
Still, Schilling’s late-career success illuminates a course Verlander could follow.
Respected baseball writer Peter Gammons recently noted the similarities between Schilling and Verlander, referring to them as moment guys. The Hall of Fame writer suggests Schilling would not have enjoyed a strong finish to his career without being traded to contenders. First, to the Arizona Diamondbacks and then the Boston Red Sox.
Gammons sees a similar opportunity for Verlander in Houston. No longer playing for a rebuilding club in Detroit, the veteran starter is with an organization likely to have many “moments” during the final two years of his current contract.
Assuming he remains healthy and productive through his age-40 season, Verlander would have to accrue at least 24 WAR to reach the heights of Mussina and Schilling. It will not be easy, but other starters have recently achieved the same feat between ages 35-40.
|Age 35-40 Production|
While others have flourished late in their career, there is no guarantee Verlander does. In retrospect, injuries shortened the superb careers of Saberhagen, Cone, and Stieb. The Astros’ ace will have to remain healthy to avoid the same fate as this distinguished trio.
Fortunately, Verlander is renowned for his physical conditioning. Moreover, Gammons notes the six-time all-star incorporated analytics into his game prep while a member of the Tigers. Constantly reinventing himself, as Schilling did, will be beneficial as Father Time advances.
As of today, Justin Verlander is not a Hall of Famer. Diehard fans in Detroit and Houston may disagree, but the facts back me up.
Having said that, I would not bet against the former Old Dominion Monarch earning membership into baseball’s most exclusive club. Heck, there is still time for him to be a first ballot selection.
That would be a fitting conclusion to an already superb baseball career.
Personally, I am rooting for it to happen.