This Tuesday, Justin Verlander will be starting Game 6 looking to clinch the 2019 World Series for the Astros. And, if you haven’t kept up on postseason trivia, Verlander will also be making his seventh career World Series start, and is still looking for his first win in the round.
I’ve see some people express concern about this, worrying that Verlander is somehow unequipped to pitch in the Fall Classic. Hopefully, that doesn’t describe any of you all, but just in case, I wanted to try and ease the minds of anyone still taking this line of thinking.
Verlander’s six World Series starts aren’t a meaningful representation of his career
This is part of the problem with using arbitrary cutoffs more than anything. Six games is still, on the whole, a very small sample size, and very much still subject to all of the randomness that entails. For instance, Gerrit Cole through six starts this season had a 1-4 record and a 4.71 ERA. No one would be willing to call Cole’s season a disappointment at that point, and it clearly wasn’t terribly representative of the season he would have.
Of course, at least those six starts have the advantage of being temporally clustered. Justin’s six World Series starts don’t even have that, coming across two separate teams, four different opponents, and fourteen seasons. In fact, his rookie season still accounts for a third of his World Season starts, since he made two appearances in Detroit’s ultimately doomed 2006 run. For as much as Astros JV has changed since his Tigers days, he changed just as much (if not more) from his rookie season until the end of his days in Michigan, with 2006 still representing his career worsts or close in things like FIP, strikeout rate, line drive rate, WHIP, and so on.
If you wanted to argue that Verlander was a bad bet in 2020 because of his 2006 numbers, no one would take you seriously. This isn’t terribly far off from that.
Good pitchers can turn it around at any time
Remember when David Price was a postseason choker? It was the long-ago time of last year heading into the ALCS, where, in 10 starts, he sat with a 1-9 record and 43 earned runs allowed in 62.2 innings.
And how did that “extensive” postseason history of failure work out? He allowed just 4 runs in his two ALCS starts, then put up a strong claim to the World Series MVP by allowing just three runs across two starts and a relief appearance. All of that history in the postseason mattered, until it suddenly didn’t and he looked like the pitcher we saw in the regular season.
Of course, Verlander doesn’t have pre-2018 Price’s history, between his 2017 World Series title and ALCS MVP, his 2.52 ERA and 8-1 career record in the ALCS, his sub-1.000 career WHIP in the ALCS, or whatever else you want to use. There’s not really a reason to separate out his World Series starts from the rest of that; all it does is give you a smaller sample size. We know Verlander is a good pitcher; the name of the seven-game series he’s playing in doesn’t change that.
Are we seriously still using won-loss record?
This is perhaps the biggest problem in citing Verlander’s 0-5 record in the World Series: are we really still evaluating pitchers based on their pitcher win totals? Most of you probably know this, but it’s still worth stating in plain text: a win is a full-team effort, and trying to attribute it all to the starting pitcher in all scenarios is just a bad idea.
And of course, even when things go well, it doesn’t always reward the starter; for example, Verlander gets no credit for Game 2 of the 2017 World Series, which the Astros ultimately won. Verlander allowed just two hits over 6.0 innings in that one, and got nothing for it. Granted, those two hits were both home runs that allowed 3 runs, but that looks a lot better in the context of a 7-6 slugfest, and it’s leagues ahead of Chris Devenski, who got the win while allowing a solo home run in just 1.1 innings. It’s not Justin’s fault the team waited until he was pulled to start hitting.
And that has nothing on Game 6, where Verlander allowed two runs on three hits but the lineup proved unable to score outside of a George Springer solo shot. The Astros wound up outhitting the Dodgers, but couldn’t convert it to runs, so JV got the loss.
In all, half of Verlander’s World Series starts have been quality starts, and that’s not even getting into all the weird hops that can swing things massively in a sample size this small, like a usually-clutch reliever proving unable to strand an inherited runner, or a Gold Glove finalist booting an inning-ending play he normally makes to keep an inning going. If either of those happen, we’re looking at a Verlander run of four quality starts in his last five Fall Classic starts (but still with a 0-4 record to show for it).
This isn’t to say that Verlander is a sure win this time around: baseball is a weird game designed for the long-haul, and even in a historic year, anything can happen in single games. Plus, even if JV upholds his end of the bargain, the lineup still has to do their thing and actually score some runs off of Stephen Strasburg. With the season coming down to just two more games and Houston needing to take one, no fan can rest easy. But starting Verlander is still clearly the right play, 0-5 World Series record be damned, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.