By The Numbers: Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Wil Myers
Justin Verlander has a 2.30 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, and 11.9 K/9 since joining the Astros in late 2017.
Those numbers aren’t front-loaded, as the 36-year-old continues to dominate this season with a 2.24 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, and 89 strikeouts in 72.1 innings. Opponents are hitting an unfathomably low .142 against the Houston ace, who yielded four combined hits over his past three starts.
Given this otherworldly success, it’s not surprising to see fortune play a helping hand. Verlander wouldn’t lead the majors in WHIP and batting average against without an MLB-low .158 BABIP. As detailed last week when discussing NL leader Chris Paddack’s unsustainably low clip, not even peak Clayton Kershaw or Pedro Martinez could sustain a sub-.200 BABIP over a full season.
Verlander also hasn’t let the few baserunners permitted complete their journey to home plate. His 97.0% left-on-base rate tops the majors, and Hyun-Jin Ryu is the only other qualified starter to strand at least 90% of baserunners. Verlander placed second behind Blake Snell’s 88% last season.
This isn’t mean to spark panic and encourage divestors. Verlander still sports a .194 xBA, 3.08 SIERA, and the fifth-highest swinging-strike rate (15.6%) of all qualified starters. He can gracefully regress into the borderline top-five ace drafters anticipated when selecting him in the late-second, early-third round. Verlander isn’t likely to maintain his current SP1 status, but he isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
Stephen Strasburg: 1.69 DRA
This number requires more of an explanation. DRA stands for Deserved Runs Average, an ERA estimator Baseball Prospectus unveiled four years ago. It accounts for a multitude of factors such as the ballpark, weather, and quality of opposition. The results pass the sniff test, as Jacob deGrom (2.09), Chris Sale (2.24), Max Scherzer (2.29), and Verlander (2.33) fared best among starters last season.
This year, prior to Thursday afternoon’s start against the Mets, Strasburg has the lowest mark of any pitcher with more than five innings pitched. He’s aiming to become the first pitcher to post a sub-2.00 DRA since Kershaw notched a 1.95 in 2015. For another frame of reference, Verlander’s 2.93 DRA ranks 17th among starters with at least 40 innings pitched.
Although not to such a sharp extent, the other metrics agree that Strasburg has performed better than his 3.32 ERA. He places among the top 10 in FIP (2.75), xFIP (2.61), and SIERA (2.93). Even those still wary of predictive stats can take comfort in his 0.98 WHIP and 25.8 K-BB%.
Last season, Strasburg jeopardized his ace status by submitting the highest ERA (3.72) and FIP (3.62) of his career. Since he was limited to 130.2 innings, the fourth straight season in which he fell short of 180 innings, drafters justifiably scoffed at paying top dollar for an oft-injured hurler who has never quite matched the hype from one of this decade’s most memorable debuts. It’s also unfair, however, to feel underwhelmed because the 30-year-old has only recorded a career 3.15 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 10.6 K/9. Although no longer the center of everyone’s affection, the Nationals righty could finally be on the cusp of a Cy Young Award campaign.
What’s changed in 2019? For starters, it helps when opponents don’t hit the ball. His tiddly 67.0% contact rate ranks third among all qualified starters behind Snell and Luis Castillo. Despite a drop in velocity, Strasburg is generating more swinging strikes (15.2%) by leaning more on a dominant curveball that has ceded a .117 wOBA. He’s also inducing weaker contact, as his ground-ball rate has leapfrogged from 43.6% to a career-best 53.9%.
It would be nice to end this section by confidently endorsing Strasburg as a top-10 starter. Given all the uncertainty clouding the game’s top hurlers, he might deserve it. Yet there’s still the pesky matter of him averaging just 145 innings pitched over the last four seasons. As long as he stays healthy, 2009’s No. 1 pick will deliver a strong profit on his draft cost.
Wil Myers: 37.2 K%
Myers has as many strikeouts (22) as hits (nine), walks (nine), and RBIs (four) combined this month. With 61 punchouts in 164 plate appearances, his K rate is dubiously MLB’s worst. As of Wednesday, his contact rate dropped nine percentage points from last season to 68.2.
Nobody drafted the 28-year-old expecting a .300 batting average, but the career .252 hitter has typically held his own enough to flourish (when healthy) with his power and speed prowess. Yet a .299 OBP has led to a mundane four steals — he combined for 48 in his last two full seasons — while a .409 slugging percentage represents his lowest mark since joining the Padres in 2015. That’s not good enough to stomach a .228 average, which may not improve any time soon.
On The Athletic’s Rates & Barrels podcast, Eno Sarris and Derek VanRiper identified Myers as a victim of the game’s enhanced slider usage. This theory makes sense, as the misplaced outfielder is batting .146 with a .206 wOBA and 41.9% whiff rate against breaking pitches. He has also whiffed on 42 of 82 offspeed pitches. Then again, he’s missing on more fastballs as well while hitting a robust .261, down last from year’s .328.
Myers had struck out in last 11 consecutive games prior to Wednesday, and he has two measly hits in his past nine contests. He has also wasted much of his sporadic contact with a 17.2% infield-fly rate. Franmil Reyes has solidified a full-time role, so a slumping Myers could start losing playing time to Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot if he doesn’t rebound soon.
Justin Smoak: .415 xwOBA
Throughout April, every fantasy baseball scribed implored anyone who would listen to grab Reyes. As expected, the results caught up to his elite Statcast indicators. The San Diego outfielder is now a game-changing slugger who could conceivably bat .260 with 35-40 home runs.
Who does Statcast think is next in line for reparations from the baseball gods? Say hello to Smoak, who’s available in more than half (53%) of all leagues. Despite hitting an unseemly .220 with a .400 slugging percentage, a .282 xBA and .539 xSLG — prior to taking Matt Barnes deep on Wednesday night — give him the second-largest discrepancies in each category behind Kendrys Morales. As of Wednesday, his xwOBA ranks 12th among hitters with at least 50 plate appearances.
All the signs point upward despite the depreciated average. He has set career bests in walks and strikeouts (18.5% each) while making the most contact and chasing the fewest pitches outside the zone of his 10-year MLB career. He has a higher average exit velocity (91.7 mph) and hard-hit rate (44.1%) than 2017, when he broke out with a .270/.355/.529 slash line and 38 home runs.
Smoak is poised to snap out of his funk soon, so grab the brawny first baseman now.