Verlander reaching new heights at 35 years old with Astros

Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) in the second inning of the game against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY SportsThe defending champion Houston Astros are off to a solid start, leading the American League West and sporting the lowest runs allowed in MLB by a sizable margin. Much of the credit for that impressively low total (126 runs allowed in 50 games) belongs to Houston’s pitching staff, which is led by veteran ace Justin Verlander. As last season’s big trade deadline get, Verlander wasn’t necessarily expected to reach new heights with the Astros, but instead add postseason experience to the starting rotation. Now, Verlander’s pitching is leading not just Houston, but the entire league, and he could be in line for another Cy Young award.

Through 11 starts, Verlander has the best earned-run average (1.08), the lowest opponent batting average (.148), and has pitched more innings than anyone else. He is far ahead of the blistering pace he set in 2011, when he won the AL Cy Young award with the Detroit Tigers with an ERA of 2.40 and 250 strikeouts. In fact, the only comparable for Verlander’s start to the 2018 season was how he finished last season after joining Houston, when he was basically perfect in five starts and striking out batters at a career-best rate.

The Astros appear to be helping Verlander’s pitch selection more than the Tigers ever did, which would explain the increase in his strikeouts per nine innings, but it is still remarkable for him to be having a career year at 35 years old. Detroit likely thought Verlander’s best days were behind him following core muscle surgery in 2014 and a long stint on the disabled list to start 2015, and few could have predicted he would fit so well into Houston’s system. Verlander headlines the best rotation in baseball with Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers Jr., and former franchise ace Dallas Keuchel, who is the only one off to a slow start.

Houston defeated the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday on the strength of a six-inning, nine-strikeout start from Verlander to maintain a two-game lead over hard-charging divisional rivals the Seattle Mariners. The juggernaut lineups of the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees loom in the AL East, waiting for their chance to dethrone the Astros, who have yet to look like the juggernauts at the plate that they were in 2017. A lot can change before the end of the season, but if Houston’s bats get going, and Verlander continues to dominate, the Astros will still be the team to beat.