The World Series-Sized Hole in Justin Verlander’s Hall of Fame Resumé
On Friday night, Justin Verlander will take the next step in his remarkable season by starting Game 1 of the World Series against the Phillies. For all that he’s accomplished in a career that will likely gain him first-ballot entry into the Hall of Fame, success in the Fall Classic has eluded him, but not for lack of opportunity. He does have a World Series ring from the Astros’ 2017 championship (tainted though it is by subsequent revelations of the team’s illegal electronic sign-stealing), but on a personal level, his Series history has combined some bad luck with a few real clunkers.
A nine-time All-Star with three no-hitters and two Cy Young awards under his belt (with a third probably on the way), Verlander is the active leader in wins (244), strikeouts (3,198, 12th all-time), and S-JAWS (64.0, 20th all-time). That’s the resumé of a surefire Hall of Famer, and we’re talking about one who’s still near the peak of his powers. At 39 years old, he’s coming off an historic season (the best for any Tommy John surgery recipient in the back half of his 30s), and that after missing nearly two full seasons. Despite losing 18 days late in the season to a right calf injury, he led the AL in ERA (1.75), xERA (2.66), and WAR (6.4), ranking third in FIP (2.49) and fifth in K-BB% (23.4%). After getting tagged for six runs and 10 hits by the Mariners in the Division Series opener, he dominated the Yankees by strking out 11 and allowing just one run in six innings in the ALCS opener. He’s still lighting up the radar gun at 98 mph when he needs it.
But while he’s pitched some postseason gems in his career — including a complete-game, four-hit shutout against the A’s in the deciding game of the 2012 Division Series; a 13-strikeout, one-run complete game against the Yankees in Game 2 of the 2017 ALCS (the last postseason complete game); and five other starts with at least 10 strikeouts and at most one run allowed — he’s never come close to a dominant World Series start. In fact, he’s 0–6 with a 5.68 ERA in seven starts totaling 38 innings, with a whopping nine homers (2.1 per nine) allowed. Those numbers stand out for all of the wrong reasons.
For one thing, those six losses are more than any other World Series pitcher besides Whitey Ford, who lost eight times, albeit in a record 22 starts, and the Chairman of the Board offset that with 10 wins, also a record. You know how we feel about pitcher wins and losses around here; they’re imperfect barometers of performance that greatly depend upon the support one receives from their offense, defense, and bullpen. But they are a subject of discussion in this context.
As you can probably surmise, Verlander has the most World Series starts of any pitcher without a win:
Starting Pitchers with Most Losses and Zero Wins in World Series History
That list has some pretty good pitchers, but no Hall of Famers; Brown is probably the closest besides Verlander, but for all of the work he did in helping the Marlins and Padres get to the World Series (four postseason wins in six starts including a two-hit shutout in NLCS Game 2 in 1998), three of his four stats there were ugly. Newcombe had a great debut in 1949 (eight innings, 11 strikeouts, one run) but wound up on the wrong end of a 1–0 score and thereafter made it past the fourth inning just one time in four tries. Root gave up Babe Ruth’s “Called Shot.” Williams was one of the eight players permanently banned from baseball for helping to fix the 1919 World Series.
Meanwhile, Verlander has the eighth-highest ERA of any pitcher with at least 20 innings in World Series starts:
Highest ERA as a World Series Starter
Minimum 20 innings pitched
My, but that’s a lot of Dodgers; six of the 15 highest starter ERAs are linked to the franchise, including four from their 1947–56 run of six pennants. They lost five of those World Series (1947, ’49, ’52, ’53, and ’56) but won in 1955, with Newcombe, Erskine, Craig, and Loes all making one start; only Craig’s netted a win or was any good. It was left up to Johnny Podres, whose two starts included a Game 7 shutout, to play the hero.
Note that several of these pitchers also made relief appearances that aren’t included within the data above, including Kershaw, whose four shutout innings under desperate circumstances in Game 7 of 2017 (after Yu Darvish was chased) lowers his overall World Series ERA to 4.46. It took two very good starts in the 2020 World Series, where he was instrumental in securing that elusive World Series ring, to get him down from 5.40 — a reminder that so much of this is just a matter of repeated opportunities, not an inability to perform at his peak at this level.
For as bad as the overall numbers are, not all of Verlander’s World Series starts have been dreadful. Here’s the game log, followed by a quick summary of each start.
Justin Verlander’s World Series Starts
2006 Game 1, Tigers vs. Cardinals
After debuting the previous September, the 23-year-old Verlander won AL Rookie of the Year honors (17–9. 3.63 ERA), but he was erratic in the postseason — able to hit triple digits but lacking in command. He scuffled in his Division Series start against the Yankees and ALCS start against the A’s, lasting 5.1 innings in both and allowing a total of seven runs. Facing the Cardinals, who had gone just 83–78 but who had a star-studded lineup, he needed 18 pitches to get through the first inning, striking out Albert Pujols to end it. He surrendered a solo homer to Scott Rolen in the second, and Pujols exacted revenge with two-run homer in the third, that after Chris Duncan had doubled home a run. Verlander didn’t retire any of the three batters he faced in the fifth, allowing one run before departing (via a Jim Edmonds single) and getting charged with two, one unearned, after leaving. Not pretty.
2006 Game 5, Tigers vs. Cardinals
Verlander got the ball again with the Tigers trailing three games to one, and he certainly pitched better than in the opener, but he couldn’t hold out against the team of destiny and was outpitched by former Tiger Jeff Weaver. The Cardinals singled the rookie into submission, with David Eckstein driving in a run in the second and another in the fourth, the latter of which gave St. Louis a 3–2 lead. Before that run, a Verlander throwing error on a fielder’s choice off the bat of Weaver — his second error of the series and the fifth by a Tigers hurler — kindled a Tim McCarver lecture about the importance of pitcher fielding practice that some say is still going.
2012 Game 1, Tigers vs. Giants
After allowing just two runs in 24.1 innings across three starts in the first two playoff rounds against the A’s and Yankees (with pitch counts of 121, 122, and 132), Verlander had a full seven days of rest before his World Series start after the Tigers swept the Yankees. Maybe the rust was to blame for this one. He served up a solo homer to Pablo Sandoval in the first, then a two-run shot to Sandoval in the third after Marco Scutaro drove in a run. In the fourth, opposite number Barry Zito even drove in a run. Sandoval would homer again to complete the trifecta, but it came against Al Alburquerque in the fifth, with Verlander having already hit the showers. He never got a second chance in this series, as the Tigers were swept.
2017 Game 2, Astros vs. Dodgers
Traded to the Astros on August 31 after a 12-year run with the Tigers, Verlander was stellar down the stretch, pitching to a 1.06 ERA in five starts and striking out 43 in 34 innings. He carried that momentum in to the playoffs, even winning ALCS MVP honors against the Yankees by allowing just one run in 16 innings, striking out 21.
For the first time, Verlander pitched pretty well in a World Series game, retiring the first nine Dodgers and not surrendering a hit until Joc Pederson’s solo homer in the fifth. He found trouble with two outs in the sixth, walking Chris Taylor and then yielding a two-run homer to Corey Seager before departing on the short end of a 3–1 score. The Astros got him off the hook, scoring runs off Kenley Jansen in the eighth and ninth, and wound up winning a wild one — featuring a total of five homers in the 10th and 11th — in 11 innings.
2017 Game 6, Astros vs. Dodgers
After the Astros won Game 5, 13–12, Verlander took the mound with a chance to clinch a championship. He hung zeroes through the first five frames, with a second-inning single by Yasiel Puig the only blemish. Meanwhile, George Springer’s homer off Rich Hill put the Astros up 1–0. But after Austin Barnes led off the sixth with a single, the Dodgers’ lineup went to town in its third look at Verlander. After Chase Utley was hit with a pitch, Taylor hit a game-tying RBI double, and Seager followed with a sacrifice fly to give the Dodgers the lead. Verlander departed after stranding Taylor at third, but the Dodgers held on to win, 3–1, and extend the series to Game 7.
2019 Game 2, Astros vs. Nationals
This time around, Verlander reached the World Series after two very good and two not-so-good starts in the Division Series against the Rays and ALCS against the Yankees. He got off on the wrong foot here, as the first three Nationals reached safely, with Anthony Rendon smacking a two-run double on an 0–2 pitch to put Verlander in the hole immediately. Alex Bregman‘s two-run homer off Stephen Strasburg tied the game in the bottom of the first, and while Verlander didn’t throw a 1-2-3 inning until the sixth, he did his part to keep the game tied until serving up a solo homer to Kurt Suzuki to lead off the seventh. He departed after walking Victor Robles, which kindled a five-run rally on Ryan Pressly’s watch. The game ended as a 12–3 rout, but for those first six innings, it was a tight one.
2019 Game 6, Astros vs. Nationals
After the Nationals won Games 1 and 2 on the road, the Astros went to Washington and took the next three, so Verlander once again took the mound with a chance to clinch. As in Game 2, Rendon plated a first-inning run, this time with an RBI single. The Astros answered with two runs off Strasburg in the bottom of the first, but Verlander gave up the lead with solo homers by Adam Eaton and Juan Soto in the fifth and left trailing 3–2. Again, the Nationals broke the game open in the late innings, winning 7–2 and forcing a Game 7. Astros manager A.J. Hinch ruled out using Verlander, who had thrown 93 pitches, in relief but did not rule out using Game 5 starter Gerrit Cole. He didn’t get the call either as the Astros fell.
In all, that’s not a great track record. Verlander sometimes struggled early, and sometimes was dealing until he wasn’t. He’s made three quality starts out of seven and lost a fourth one by lingering past the sixth. He hasn’t gotten an out in the seventh or later in any of those starts and has only topped 100 pitches twice. To be fair, he also hasn’t had much margin for error, as his teams have scored just 20 runs in his seven starts; the one time they scored more than three (Game 2 in 2017), four of the runs came in extra innings. That he’s never left a World Series game with a lead isn’t entirely his fault.
The good news for Verlander is that he gets another shot; having another chance to pitch in a World Series is no doubt one of the reasons he re-signed with the Astros in the first place. If Reggie Jackson’s line, “When you have the bat in your hand, you can always change the story,” is true for a hitter in a big spot, then same thing is true for a pitcher taking the mound in a World Series opener. Just by doing so, Verlander, at 39 years and 250 days old, will become the fourth-oldest pitcher to start Game 1 of the Fall Classic:
Oldest Pitchers to Start World Series Game 1
|Roger Clemens||10/22/2005||43-079||HOU||@||CHW||L 3-5||GS-2||2||4||3||1||0||1|
|David Wells||10/18/2003||40-151||NYY||FLA||L 2-3||GS-7, L||7||6||3||0||2||1|
|Early Wynn||10/1/1959||39-268||CHW||LAD||W 11-0||GS-8, W||7||6||0||0||1||6|
|Sal Maglie||10/3/1956||39-160||BRO||NYY||W 6-3||CG, W||9||9||3||2||4||10|
|Orel Hershiser||10/18/1997||39-032||CLE||@||FLA||L 4-7||GS-5, L||4.1||6||7||2||4||2|
|Tim Wakefield||10/23/2004||38-082||BOS||STL||W 11-9||GS-4||3.2||3||5||1||5||2|
|Woody Williams||10/23/2004||38-065||STL||@||BOS||L 9-11||GS-3||2.1||8||7||1||3||1|
|Curt Davis||10/1/1941||38-024||BRO||@||NYY||L 2-3||GS-6, L||5.1||6||3||1||3||1|
|Charlie Morton||10/26/2021||37-348||ATL||@||HOU||W 6-2||GS-3||2.1||1||0||0||2||3|
|Walter Johnson||10/7/1925||37-335||WSH||@||PIT||W 4-1||CG, W||9||5||1||1||1||10|
Another rough start won’t break Verlander’s legacy any more than a great one will make it. He’s one of the all-time greats, regardless of what happens against the Phillies, but his career will feel that much more complete if he pitches up to his potential.