The Argument for Justin Verlander

Briefly taking the baton from Alex Sonty, the question of whether to draft Justin Verlander certainly isn’t a binary one, as his fantasy life in 2022 will be driven by both the quality and health of his arm. And those are some pretty big questions to answer considering he’s only pitched six innings over the past two seasons.

What can’t be questioned is that Verlander was a fantasy juggernaut in the three seasons prior to missing most of the past two seasons. According to the FanGraphs auction calculator, he was the #12 SP in 2017, the #3 SP in 2018 (his first full year in Houston), and the #1 SP in 2019.

Justin Verlander 2017-2019
2017 2 Teams 206 15 219 25.8% 8.5% 17.3% 1.17 3.36 3.84 4.17 4.05
2018 HOU 214 16 290 34.8% 4.4% 30.4% 0.90 2.52 2.78 3.03 2.63
2019 HOU 223 21 300 35.4% 5.0% 30.5% 0.80 2.58 3.27 3.18 2.95

But the injury dominoes started falling heavy in 2020, with an unexpected groin surgery in March and the concurrent lat injury that Verlander claimed was the result of adjusting his mechanics to compensate for the balky groin. He recovered in time for the start of the delayed season but the dreaded forearm strain arrived after just one start ultimately leading to TJ surgery in October of that year.

By the time spring training (hopefully!) starts, Verlander will be ~18 months past his surgery and 39-years-old. With a current ADP outside of the top-100, should you take the chance on the former Cy Young winner, or pass?

As the title indicates, I say yay. Let’s talk about why.

Injury Risk Questions

To have injury concerns about an aging pitcher coming off of TJ surgery isn’t exactly cutting edge, especially if you’re baking in the injuries that came just prior. But that (relatively) old man body has been well-rested for nearly two years and while they’re still no guarantee, modern TJ surgery has a dependable track record. And I’m comfortable assuming that Verlander has maximized his rehab and hasn’t just been sitting around eating Cheetos.

I’m not the only one comfortable with his health, as the Astros forked over $25 million for his services in 2022. Sure, it’s not a multiyear deal but $25 million ain’t exactly a prove-it deal. Jeff Luhnow may not run the show anymore but outside of Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman Houston doesn’t have much of a recent track record for handing out big money, and Verlander will take up ~15% of their payroll in 2022. We’re only gambling around a top-100 pick so I’m willing to draft on some of the Astros quarter-mil trust.

If you’re playing in deep leagues that are higher stakes and have an overall component, perhaps the risk is still too great. But I believe it’s more than acceptable in 12-team leagues and shallower, as the wire is going to afford you more viable options for replacement, if necessary.

Performance Risk Questions

My biggest question is his total innings load, as Houston gave him all that cash to be healthy in October, not April so I doubt they hit the gas right out of the gates, whenever it is that the gates get unlocked. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic but ~170 IP still seems reasonable and think taking the over wouldn’t be totally nuts considering he’s made a career out of racking up 200 IP+ seasons.

Popular projection systems run the gamut; Depth Charts and Steamer are respectively at 180 IP and 175 IP, while Zips is at 146 IP and ATC at 137 IP – the BAT is also at 137 IP but I believe that Derek Carty has started using ATC playing time for his projections. But even at those lower IP totals,  ATC still projects Verlander as the #20 SP in 12-team leagues (according to the auction calculator) and as the #12 SP under the BAT.

However, those projections still don’t seem like a high bar compared to recent history:

Justin Verlander 2017-2021 + 2022 Projections
2017 2 Tms 206 15 219 25.8% 8.5% 17.3% 1.17 3.36 3.84 4.17 4.05
2018 HOU 214 16 290 34.8% 4.4% 30.4% 0.90 2.52 2.78 3.03 2.63
2019 HOU 223 21 300 35.4% 5.0% 30.5% 0.80 2.58 3.27 3.18 2.95
2020 HOU 6 1 7 33.3% 4.8% 28.6% 0.67 3.00 5.69 2.96 2.86
2022 ZiPS DC 185 15 228 0.97 3.39 3.81
2022 THE BAT 136 10 166 30.0% 6.9% 23.1% 1.07 3.75 4.07
2022 ATC 136 10 156 28.0% 6.3% 21.6% 1.08 3.67 4.25
2022 FGDC 180 14 220 1.03 3.51 3.73
2022 Steamer 175 12 212 29.6% 6.1% 23.5% 1.09 3.64 3.64 3.66

Wins may be hard to count on but few starters have more of a conducive environment for inspiring confidence, as Verlander goes deep into games and will be backed by a strong offense and bullpen. Sometimes baseball is going to baseball but reaching double-digit wins in a full season seems like the most conservative of floors. In his 14 full seasons, Verlander has failed to reach double-digit wins just once (2015: 133 IP, 5 W), reaching at least 15 wins in all but three.

Like it, or not but wins are a category for a majority of fantasy players and you’ll get just as many points in the standings for them as you do for strikeouts. You can either throw your hands up and claim it’s up to the baseball gods, or you can prepare and set yourself up for success the best that you can. Dealer’s choice.

Strikeouts aren’t much of a question for me and something north or near a 30% K% seems a safe bet. It’ll obviously be a concern if Verlander comes out pumping 92 mph with his four-seamer but we won’t know until we know and again, I don’t think Houston is giving him $25 million if he wasn’t on track to be full strength soon. And being a full 18 months out from surgery can’t be a bad thing.

Even if he comes back with slightly less heat, I think Verlander may have already shown us hints in 2019 that he knew he wouldn’t be able to live off of 60% fastballs forever and would need to hone his old-man game to continue staying ahead of hitters. But don’t confuse an old-man game with being a crafty veteran, as the latter implies (to quote Alex when we were chatting about JV) a substitution of tricks for skill.

No, a true old-man game is about maximizing the best skills you have left and helping give cover to those that might start fading a bit. Say, perhaps, swapping in career-high sliders for career-low four-seamers?

I’m not saying that Verlander will need to go full-Corbin but it’s nice to know that a power-pitcher coming off of TJ has already shown comfort in relying more of the slower stuff. And he wasn’t just relying on it more, he was thriving:

Justin Verlander Slider 2015-2021
Year n % wOBA xwOBA wOBAcon xwOBAcon SwStr% Whiff% PutAway%
2015 366 17.0 .244 .242 .286 .284 16.7 31.9 15.5
2016 651 17.8 .208 .228 .240 .270 15.7 27.5 21.9
2017 758 21.5 .296 .257 .418 .355 18.2 32.8 22.1
2018 762 22.3 .246 .208 .379 .309 19.8 39.1 24.6
2019 929 28.7 .162 .179 .244 .274 24.9 39.9 27.4

That’s a lot of lows and highs in the StatCast age, with the slider ascending to Verlander’s primary put-away pitch in 2019. And why not? A 39.9% Whiff% was the highest since the old Tiger years but a 24.9% SwStr% was the more impressive jump. Remember that:

Whiff% = Total Whiffs/Total Swings
SwStr% = Total Whiffs/Total Pitches

So while batters may have been whiffing at the pitch in 2019 as much as they did in 2018, Verlander has much greater success in getting them to offer at it in the first place.

For context, his 19.8% SwStr% in 2018 was the 12th-highest among starting pitchers (min 250 sliders thrown). In 2019, it was third, trailing only Patrick Corbin and Max Scherzer. And of his 300 strikeouts that season, 117 of them were finished with a slider whiff.

I’m starting to think more might have been a pretty decent idea.

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If you want to just wave injury-based jazz hands and pass, fine. But if Verlander reaches 150 IP, he’ll be a top-20 SP and if he reaches 175 IP he’ll finish near the top-10.

He’s currently being taken as the #32 SP in NFBC Draft Champion leagues since the middle of January, sandwiched between Shane McClanahan and Blake Snell…You know, because those guys are definitely locks to pitch a full season.

Har-dee. Har-har.

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Lunch Anglemember
2 years ago

If there’s any pitcher in baseball that I would bet on succeeding at age 39 without having pitched in two years, it would be Justin Verlander.