MLB Star Power Index: Astros' Justin Verlander a clear-cut Cy Young favorite; Nats' Juan Soto deserves more praise
Welcome to the MLB Star Power Index — a weekly temperature reading that tells us which players are owning the baseball conversation right now. While one’s presence on this list is often a positive, it’s not necessarily a good thing. It simply means that you’re capturing the baseball world’s attention for one reason or another. The players listed are in no particular order. Thanks to Brad Botkin and our NBA compadres for letting us borrow the concept.
This is not about Justin Verlander’s. This is not even about how he’s absolutely right when he implies that the secret to success in business and leisure is a replenishing blast of Flonase. This, rather, is about his pitching, which has been rather very good in 2019.
At this writing, Verlander leads the AL in ERA, innings, and K/BB ratio, and he leads the majors in strikeouts and WHIP. That latter merit — being stingier than anyone when it comes to allowing baserunners — has been vital given that Verlander also paces the AL in home runs allowed. But let’s keep this positive. Speaking of which, Verlander recently became just the fifth pitcher ever to strike out 10 or more batters in seven straight starts.
This is all happening in Verlander’s age-36 season. It’s one thing to be one of the best pitchers in baseball at such an age, but it’s something else to do it five years after many of us were wondering whether Verlander was in deep decline. Yep, Verlander in 2014 pitched to a 4.54 ERA with some of the worse underlying numbers of his career. He was 31 and for the eighth straight year had logged more than 200 innings. Maybe that early workload was exacting an early cost. Consider this Nov. 3, 2014 above-the-fold, 100-point headline in the Michigan Bi-Weekly Shouter, which is both indiscreet and deeply erroneous in retrospect:
Well, that particular script got flipped in a major way, and Verlander since 2016 has been on the short-short-list of best pitchers on the planet. He’s squarely on a Hall of Fame track, and this year he’s got a shot at becoming one of the oldest Cy Young winners ever. Round off the decimal, and Verlander’s fastball velocity is the same as it was when he was a rookie. So, no, he’s probably not done making a hash of opposing hitters.
Yes, it’s been a trying season for the Gangly Liquidator. As you see above, Chris Sale has not authored vintage numbers in 2019. On top of all that,. Yes, he avoided Tommy John surgery, but the larger reality is that Sale didn’t live up to expectations in his first campaign since signing a five-year, $145 million extension (that hasn’t even kicked in yet).
The Red Sox right now have very little hope of returning to the postseason to defend the belt and title, so the focus shifts toward 2020 and beyond. Necessarily, a large swath of that focus — at least the size of huge burger — will be on Sale’s future outlook. So this scribe shall now take some dry swings with the talking stick and riff about all of that.
Nothing predicts future injuries like injuries in the prior season, so on those grounds Sale’s elbow is a concern moving forward. As for performance, though, all is not grim as it seems based on that career-worst 4.40 ERA. Consider these mitigating observations when it comes to that un-Sale-ish ERA:
- Sale remained dominant when it comes to making batters miss. This season, he struck out 35.6 percent of opposing batters, which ranks second to only Gerrit Cole in all of MLB.
- He also ranks third in the AL right now with a K/BB ratio of 5.89.
- When it comes to Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Run Average (DRA), which is the most all-encompassing of all ERA estimators, Sale this season checks in with a mark of 2.91. That’s another way of saying that once you correct for the many things outside of the pitcher’s control that influence ERA, Sale should have a sub-3.00 mark, which is of course excellent.
- It’s also worth noting that Sale this season has played in front of one of the AL’s worst team defenses this season as measured by Defensive Efficiency Rating, which is the percentage at which a defense converts balls in play into outs.
- On top of all this, let’s note that Sale’s is solid 109, thanks to league conditions and the hitter-friendly ballpark in which he pitches his home games.
And what of the giddy-up, from which so much flows? Sale’s velocity famously cratered at times this season, but he also proved himself still capable of flashing peak velocity. Purty picture forthcoming:
His average fastball velocity this season has ranged from 89.9 mph on April 2 against the Athletics to 96.1 mph against the Yankees on April 16. Overall, Sale wound up with an average four-seamer velocity of 93.8 mph, which is higher than what he registered in 2016 and 2012. And to repeat, he still had the big fastball show up in isolated starts. In other words, he’s still capable of at least touching the mid-90s.
That’s good news looking forward. When you add it all up — his strong peripherals, the bad luck baked into his elevated ERA, that he’s still a four-pitch guy — it’s easy to envision a bounce-back season in 2020 for Sale, assuming health. Decline is never linear, especially for greats like Sale, and at age 30 he’s not especially old.
So save your “Sale’s contract is bad for the Red Sox” takes. He’s far from done, it says here.
The hell is wrong with you? You keep not talking about Juan Soto, and frankly that’s quite enough. Stop not talking about Juan Soto.
Look, Soto is just 20 years of age, he owns a career OPS+ of 140, and he’s already at 50 career home runs through 232 career games. In addition to all that power, he’s also got an absurdly advanced approach at the plate for his age — he’s drawn walks in almost 16 percent of his plate appearances. Indeed, Soto is one of just two hitters ever to rack up at least 50 home runs and at least 150 walks before age 21. The other is Mel Ott, who’s something of an inner-circle Hall of Famer. Once more for fitting emphasis:
Juan Soto and Mel Ott are the only two hitters ever to have 50 or more home runs and 150 or more walks before age 21.
All of those things are true, and yet you continue not talking about him. Sure, you’ll drone on and on about grout cleaner reviews, and the ashtray that looks like a rubber ducky on Etsy, and how you’ve never met a dog named David or Jason, and how you almost came to blows over whether Ford Festivas were cool, and the existence of energy ham, and how you knew a guy in middle school named John Newton-Olivia. You’ll talk about all that, but you won’t talk about how Juan Soto is off to a legendary start to his career.
People, go forth and talk to strangers about Juan Soto with the zeal of the newly converted.
Yu Darvish was once regarded as a millstone around the (furry) necks of the Cubs. If you look at his overall numbers — 4.54 ERA in 34 starts — since signing a $126 million deal with Chicago prior to last year, then, yeah, he still seems somewhat millstonian. However, the veteran right-hander has been much better of late. He’s got a 3.23 ERA and only one unearned run allowed in the second half. More impressive, though, is what Darvish has achieved at the command-and-control level:
Yea and also verily: The guy has 65 strikeouts against just two walks in 47 1/3 innings since the break. Those kinds of K/BB numbers augur quite well for Darvish the rest of the way. That’s what the Cubs need, especially in light of Jon Lester’s and Cole Hamels’ recent inconsistency, if they’re going to prevail in the NL Central.
Also, let’s yell Darvish’s name from the praise conch for his data-based Twitter clapbacks. See here:
In addition to throwing, oh, seven different pitches for strikes, Darvish is also capable of putting #data and #facts right where he wants them. Tuck your chin before catching this verified-account smoke.