Justin Verlander has had a bit of a run of tough luck in his recent starts, but he hasn’t let that stop him from being just as dominant as he has been the rest of the year. Despite his two-hit loss on Wednesday, Verlander picked up eleven strikeouts, becoming just the fifth player in major league history with seven straight double-digit strikeout games after Chris Sale, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Nolan Ryan. And in Gerrit Cole’s absence, Verlander has shot to the top of the strikeout leaderboard, sitting at 239 to Cole’s 226.
Given that uptick in strikeouts, Verlander might be able to top 290 Ks on the year, the personal best mark that he set last season. And if he does that, it would put him right on the doorstop of another bit of history: 3000 strikeouts. It once seemed like a sure thing that Verlander would have to wait until 2020 to become the eighteenth member of the historic club, but after his recent stretch of games, he has an opportunity to do it a few months early.
As is, Verlander has a career total of 2945 whiffs to his name, meaning he needs 55 more the rest of the way. As I alluded to earlier, those 55 strikeouts would get him to a career-best 294 on the season. In his current seven-game run, Verlander has four eleven-strikeout games and one each of ten, twelve, and thirteen, which would mean he could conceivably do it in just five games.
Of course, that’s a rather extreme run to expect him to continue, but even if he drops off a bit to, say, a nine-strikeout average, six more games at that total would leave him just one strikeout shy of 3000. And of course, Verlander right now sits at 27 starts, seven shy of his total from last year. Both of those back-of-the-envelope calculations make it seem like Verlander is a strong bet to make it before the end of the year.
Of course, back-of-the-envelope calculations like that only take you so far. Let’s look at things another way: Verlander has a strikeout rate this year of 35.0%. That puts him fourth in the majors this year, behind Cole, Sale, and Max Scherzer. It would also be a career best rate, a hair ahead of his 34.8% from last year, but actually behind his post-trade 2017 rate of 35.8%, so it’s not totally out of sorts with the rest of his Astros career. All in all, it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to say that Verlander could keep up that rate the rest of the way.
At that rate, to pick up 55 more strikeouts, JV would need to face about 157.14 batters. In his 27 starts this season, he has faced a total of 683, which works out to 25.30 batters per starts. Given that average, Verlander needs just over 6 more starts to make it the rest of the way. Again, that seems to work with what we got in the “9 Ks per start” assumption, so we were on the right track.
There’s one other thing that could factor into things, though: the quality of teams that Verlander will be facing from here on out. It’s hard to say for sure which teams exactly Verlander will be facing, but his most likely next start will come during the Tampa Bay Rays’ trip to Houston. For as good as they’ve been this season, the Rays have been surprisingly susceptible to striking out, with a 23.7% team strikeout rate that’s tenth highest in the majors.
From there, things are a bit of a toss-up. The seven remaining opponents the Astros will face before the postseason include the Blue Jays, the Brewers, the Mariners, the A’s, the Royals, and the Rangers. Drawing the Jays, Brewers, Mariners, or Rangers would definitely help Verlander towards his goal, as all four fall in the top third of team strikeout rankings. The Rangers are the highest of the bunch in third place (25.7%), and the Mariners are in a close-behind fifth (25.5%), while Toronto and Milwaukee are back-to-back in seventh and eighth, respectively (24.3% and 24.2%).
The other three are a different story, though. For as bad as the Royals have been this year, they’re still avoiding strikeouts like they used to back in the middle of the decade. Despite an 82 wRC+ that’s third-worst in the league, their 22.5% whiff rate is tied with the Yankees for just eighteenth highest. The A’s are even better, at 21.1% and seventh in the league.
And most concerning for Justin’s chances are the Angels: the Astros’ most frequent opponent from here on out are the second-best team in the majors at avoiding strikeouts, behind only the Astros themselves, 19.5% to 18.2%. If Verlander starts the series opener against the Rays, he’ll have missed one of the three remaining Angels series, but that still leaves two more. The only other team Houston faces multiple times from here on out is Seattle. On top of that, the remaining four-game series are against Oakland, Los Angeles, and Seattle, meaning Verlander is exceptionally likely to hit each of those at least once.
There’s a lot to sort through there. My take away is that if Verlander can get seven more starts the rest of the way, he’s an extremely good bet to hit 3000 strikeouts. Only six starts is where things will get dicey. Verlander can’t keep up his current run forever, but the right set of opponents could get him a few more games like his last few. Two of those likely being against some of the most strikeout-avoidant teams could make things even more challenging, but a game or two to pad his numbers against the Mariners and Rangers would go a long way to helping him along his journey.
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