Last night was a barn-burner in Houston basketball AND baseball. I watched the Rockets even their series with Golden State and then flipped over to see Justin Verlander accomplish what is one of the most unlikely pitching feats in the modern game – a one-man shutout. These days, even a no-hitter is likely to be a collective effort. Verlander has been sensational beyond words. Perhaps I should say on the baseball mound and on the stump.
During last year’s post-season run, the team returned from being swept by the Yankees and had a day off. Verlander was scheduled to keep Houston baseball fans’ hopes alive the next day. He had been with the team a little over a month and had a wedding planned after the season — whenever it ended. I can’t imagine a better reason, or reason to decline an invitation to come out to the ballpark for a press conference. But no. He attended while his teammates rested. And he said something like, “This is why they got me… To pitch this game tomorrow… To win a championship.”
This year, improbably, he has been even better than last. After shutting out the Angels last night, his record is 5-2 and his ERA is 1.05. I don’t think Bob Gibson, with his 1.12 mark in 1968 is worried yet. But, Gibson was never a goodwill ambassador. Somehow, amidst baseball’s demanding, nearly every day schedule, Verlander has found time to tweet best wishes to the Rockets and keep up a running dialogue on social media. When I was broadcasting, it was nearly impossible to get a pitcher who had just completed a game to stick around for a post-game interview. Verlander dutifully accommodated Astros broadcasters and fans last night before heading home for another day off. If he goes out to Minute Maid to meet the press today, I will declare him inhuman.
But it’s not just the Justin Verlander show in Houston this year. It’s the whole starting rotation. Now that the team has passed the quarter pole, it is tempting to speculate about what they could do over the course of the whole season. If they keep up what they have done so far, they will become the best starting rotation in the history of the sport.
Being an insomniac, I started looking for comparisons after the game. Various researchers have written about the best all-time, the best in the last 50 years, 25 years and so forth. It would be laborious to analyze them completely because you would have to put them in context. The 1927 Yankees were mentioned in several stories. The Kansas City Monarchs during Satchel Paige’s prime got a nod. The 1954 Indians had pitchers who finished first, third and fourth in the league in ERA and the team won 111 baseball games. The Dodgers of the seventies with Drysdale and Koufax were superb. And the 1971 Orioles had four twenty game winners.
But to compare these rotations statistically is way beyond my pay grade. You would have to consider league offense and home field tendencies. You would want to and go back and analyze baserunners per inning. And you would have to compare these pitching staffs to others of their era. How much did they stand out?
The 2018 Astros rotation stands out like a tuxedo in a nudist colony.
At this juncture, they are allowing less than one base runner per inning. In some seasons, the pitcher who wins the Cy Young Award allows more runners than that. In most seasons there are fewer than five pitchers in the league who accomplish it. Pedro Martinez did it six times. Greg Maddux and Tom Seaver did it four times. Max Scherzer has done it four times too and is at it again this year. But Roger Clemens only did it once among his seven Cy Young seasons. And Randy Johnson only did it twice. To have a whip under 1.00 for your entire rotation is unheard of.
Of course, the leader at the quarter pole doesn’t always win the race. And it is unreasonable to think the Astros can keep it up. Yet, it is also unreasonable that they have done it this long. Their cumulative ERA is 2.23. They have won 22 baseball games and lost only 9. They have pitched 290 innings and have averaged 10.6 strikeouts per inning. If you put those numbers together, you win the Cy Young Award.
The closest thing to a one-team comparison I could find was the 1998 Atlanta Braves. The Braves had Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz in their rotation that year. Denny Neagle won 16 games and Kevin Millwood won 17. The whole rotation went 88-37 and the Braves won 106 games. The starters allowed 1.15 baserunners per inning. They did this playing half of their games at Turner Field, otherwise known as the Launching Pad. And they did it at the height of the steroid era when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were staging their famous home run duel.
The Astros won 102 baseball games that year and the Padres 98. But Kevin Brown beat Randy Johnson in game one of the playoffs and the Padres beat both the Astros and the Braves to win the National League pennant. Then they lost to the Yankees in the World Series. It makes you realize how hard it is to win the pennant and the World Series. I’m sure A. J. Hinch would be happy to win 106 games and worry about getting back to the World Series later. Even if the starting rotation comes back to earth from this point on, what they are doing now is unprecedented in modern baseball history.