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Verlander in October: A History of the Astros’ Ace in the Playoffs

With the Astros’ backs against the wall, they turn to their historic ace to save the season

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Astros’ backs are against the wall. After a heart-breaking loss yesterday, they need a win going into Game 5. Thankfully, there are few pitchers that would be better to pin your hopes on in a must-win game than Justin Verlander.

Of course, his regular season record is unimpeachable. There’s the Cy Young, MVP, and Rookie of the Year awards of course. There’s also the high likelihood that he will be the eighteenth pitcher with 3000 strikeouts, given his 2706 career total and his fifth career strikeout title this past season. There’s any number of other accolades you can name that will one day litter his Cooperstown plaque.

But let’s also not forget: he’s been really, really good in the postseason. For starters, as Baseball Prospectus’s Aaron Gleeman notes, JV has more postseason starts with a Game Score of 70 or higher than every other pitcher in baseball history outside of Tom Glavine, who totaled his eight in a lot more games. Sure, some of that is a product of opportunities, given the modern expanded playoffs, but at the same time, those are still some good pitchers to keep company with! Guys like Curt Schilling and Orel Hershiser are some of the best postseason pitchers in history, and Justin Verlander has about the same number of great playoff starts in a comparable number of chances!

If you prefer more traditional metrics, he still looks really good in October. He’s 13-6 for his career, good for fourth all-time in playoff wins. He similarly has 13 Quality Starts, so it’s not like he’s been bailed out by his lineup or bullpen a large number of times. And of course, he won the ALCS MVP (as well as the much more important undying love of Jose Altuve) for his work last season.

Of course, Verlander’s success also holds up at the much more granular level. Almost every rate stats of his that you can imagine is about as good or better on the big stage. His ERA? 3.39 in regular season play (an ERA- of 80), 3.08 in the postseason (72). His FIP? 3.42 before Game 162 (FIP- of 81), 3.26 (77) after. WHIP? Drops from 1.16 to 1.00. Even his strikeouts increase, with his rate going from 23.9% to 28.1% (netting him 163 to go with those other 2706). None of that even accounts for the increased level of postseason lineups, which would only increase it’s impressiveness even more. And if you want clutch, his 2.44 career postseason Win Probability Added narrowly misses top ten all-time among pitchers.

And even that might understate his dominance come playoff time. Small sample sizes can really skew overall results, and that’s probably a big reason why Verlander took so long to earn his “Certified Postseason ACE” label. In his rookie season, way back in 2006, Verlander was a key part of the pennant-winning Tigers, and picked up just under 22 innings along the way. Except while he was a great rookie pitcher, he wasn’t quite yet the dominant ace we’ve come to know him as (for example, he posted a 4.35 FIP that first season), and there’s a good chance he was worn down (after 130 total innings the year before, Verlander threw 207.2 in 2006, a mark he wouldn’t top until 2009). He struggled in that first year, posting a 5.82 ERA and -0.5 WPA in October, and given the quantity of innings he picked up that month, it’s had an outsized affect on his career postseason numbers.

Since his first return to October play in 2011, he’s been absolutely lights-out. That time accounts for 140 of his 163 whiffs (a 29.2% K%), drops nearly half a run off of his ERA (all the way down to 2.60), and sees him posting a 0.890 WHIP. And if he got back that WPA he lost in 2006, he’d move up to sixth all-time on the all-time list, right in between Jon Lester and Wade Davis.

There’s no use in sugar coating things: the Astros’ situation is pretty dire right now. Teams have only come back from 3-1 deficits in the postseason thirteen times in history. Even if your starter is on his game, there are still plenty of things that can go wrong. But if you are going to come back, all you can do now is set things up as best as you can, lay your cards on the table, and let the chips fall where they may. And in those tough scenarios, having an all-time postseason ace like Justin Verlander up your sleeve is about as good a starting hand as you can hope for.