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Justin Verlander vs. Gerrit Cole for Cy Young, Part I: JV4CY

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Which teammate has the leg up in the award race? Today, we look at Verlander.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

With the two runaway favorites in the AL Cy Young race being Astros, we decided to take an in-depth look at each of them this week. Tomorrow will focus on Gerrit Cole, but for today, let’s examine the case for Justin Verlander as 2019 AL Cy Young.

Justin Verlander is no stranger to Cy Young races, but it’s easy to forget that he still has only actually won one time. Sure, that one time was pretty unforgettable, capping off a 2011 season that saw him win the Pitching Triple Crown, throw his second no-hitter, and become the first pitcher to win the MVP award in two decades.

But this is a no-doubt Hall of Famer who’s rapidly closing in on 3000 strikeouts and still somehow setting career bests this year, in his fourteenth full season, at the age of 36. Someone who reached double-digit strikeouts seven starts in a row, something that’s been done just seven times (and by only five different pitchers). A man who became just the sixth player in history to pitch three no-hitters, a full twelve years after his first one, in a game that became just the fifteenth in history with a Game Score of 100 or more in nine innings.

I like to look at Cy Young shares when examining Hall of Fame cases, and Verlander is currently eleventh of all-time, right smack dab in the middle of all of the repeat winners. At 3.40 shares, he’s in between Hall of Famers (and repeat Cy Young winners) Roy Halladay and Tom Glavine. Verlander’s just 0.17 shares behind Jim Palmer and 0.35 ahead of Sandy Koufax, both three-time winners. That’s all pretty good company!

However, the next closest pitcher without two actual wins is Felix Hernandez, who trails him by nearly a full win and won’t be moving up the leaderboard this year. Justin, meanwhile, is almost certain to pass 4.00 this year, moving into seventh all-time, and he still might not pick up his second Cy. At least losing to Gerrit Cole would feel a little more justified than getting snubbed for Rick Porcello. But that’s not set in stone yet, and he could still pull this off.

But what about the specifics? If you like old fashioned stats, Verlander has you covered there. He’s leading the American League in innings at 206.0, and leading in two-thirds of the AL pitching triple crown with 18 wins and a 2.58 ERA. Only his teammate is preventing him from picking up a second one with 292 Ks to his 275, although Verlander did lead for a little bit of the season when Cole was injured.

But it’s not just the traditional, surface stats that hold up. His WHIP is currently 0.782, which isn’t just league-leading, but historic. There have been three qualified seasons in history where a pitcher has had a WHIP below 0.800. One was Pedro Martinez in his legendary 2000 season, when he set the all-time mark at 0.737. One was Walter Johnson in 1913, with a 0.780 mark that helped him become the first pitcher to win an MVP when he took home the AL Chalmers Award (a precursor to the modern MVP award). The third was the legendary Guy Hecker of the 1882 Louisville Eclipse and his 0.769 WHIP, who struggled to recapture that rookie magic in subsequent years as rule changes finally allowed pitchers to throw overhand and reduced the number of balls in a walk from eight, and I swear to God I am not making any of this up.

His opponent batting average is similarly legendary, with only 2000 Pedro (.167) and 1968 Luis Tiant (.168) matching his league-leading .168 mark. And while it’s not his best season ever (that’s still that magical 2011 season), he’s managed a .571 opponent OPS, which is just a point above Chris Davis’s OPS on the season. In comparison, his ERA+ (178) and walk rate (4.9%) are disappointing, since they only lead the American League.

His unusual lines this season tend to have weird effects on his Fielding Independent Pitching, but he’s still doing fine there, with a 3.33 FIP (fourth in the AL) and a 3.29 xFIP (third). That all translates nicely into Wins Above Replacement, where his 5.8 fWAR trails only Cole and Lance Lynn, and his 7.4 bWAR is behind only Mike Minor. Of course, if you prefer a more context-based value stat, he laps the field in Win Probability Average at 3.90. Hyun-Jin Ryu is the next closest pitcher to him at 3.22, and the only other AL pitcher within a win of him is Shane Bieber at 2.99.

At his peak this season, no one has been able to match Verlander. As mentioned earlier, his 100 Game Score in his no-hitter is the best mark of the season, and one of only fourteen starts in 2019 to top 90. But at just about every cutoff you pick, Verlander still leads the league. Game Scores of over 85? Verlander has 4, everyone else is 3 or below. 80? Chris Sale, Gerrit Cole, and Walker Buehler have 4, but Verlander has 5. 75? Verlander 11, Buehler 9. 70? Verlander 16, deGrom 13. And so on and so on.

One other thing I wanted to check, out of curiosity, was rough idea of strength of schedule for pitchers. I looked at the average wRC+ of the lineups several AL Cy Young contenders faced. The differences are ultimately pretty small, with the best and worst separated by about 5 points once you account for pitchers, which makes sense over the course of a full season. The biggest gap actually came from how many times a pitcher faced the Astros, hence why Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are at one end and division rival Lance Lynn is at the other.

AL Cy Young Candidates, by average wRC+ of teams faced

Pitcher wRC+ wRC+ (NP) wRC+ (-HOU) wRC+ (NP, -HOU)
Pitcher wRC+ wRC+ (NP) wRC+ (-HOU) wRC+ (NP, -HOU)
Verlander 98.4 99 98.4 99
Cole 95.7 97 95.7 97
Bieber 99.3 100.2 97.6 98.4
Giolito 100.1 101.4 99.2 100.5
Morton 99.8 100.8 98.1 99
Sale 99.4 100.4 97.1 98.1
Lynn 101 102.1 98.3 99.4
NP: No pitchers; -HOU: Average with Astros excluded

Ultimately, I wouldn’t use this as anything beyond a tiebreaker, and most of the pitchers in my estimation are too far off for that to matter. But separating out Cole and Verlander for the top spot might come down to that, and if it does, Cole has surprisingly had an easier schedule this year. I was shocked that two teammates could have much of a gap at all, let alone one sometimes larger than rivals who had entirely different schedules.

But breaking it down, I could see what happened. Both have faced the same opponents for the most part, but Verlander has somehow accumulated twice as many games against the Yankees, Twins, and A’s this year, the three toughest lineups the Astros have faced, as well as an extra pair against the above-average Mariners. Cole, meanwhile, more often drew interleague opponents like the Cubs, Cardinals, Rockies, and Pirates, who were worse even after accounting for pitchers batting.

Differences in Verlander and Cole’s opponents, 2019

Team Verlander Cole
Team Verlander Cole
NYY 2 1
MIN 2 1
OAK 4 2
CHC 0 1
SEA 5 3
CLE 1 2
PIT 0 1
STL 0 1
TEX 5 4
COL 0 1
KCR 0 2
DET 2 1
Verlander and Cole’s number of games against each team, with commonalities excluded; highest wRC+ to lowest

In the end, maybe that doesn’t matter for you. It’s a pretty small difference overall, and Cole’s candidacy has plenty of upsides as well. But when combined with all of the ways that Justin Verlander’s 2019 has been one for the record books…it just might be enough to put him over the edge and finally win him that second Cy Young Award.