In a top heavy class of free agent starting pitchers, the biggest name belongs perhaps to the elder statesman of the bunch. Justin Verlander hits the open market on the eve of his 40th birthday as the reigning AL Cy Young winner and AL ERA leader. A modern day Nolan Ryan of sorts, one could imagine him remaining one of the best starters in baseball well into his second decade in the league, and he has a chance to parlay that into a record-breaking contract this winter.
2022 Statistics: 28 games, 175 IP, 1.75 ERA, 2.49 FIP, 3.23 xFIP, 9.5 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 6.1 fWAR
Previous Contract: Signed two-year, $50 million contract with Astros last winter, second year vested as player option with 130 innings pitched in 2022.
Declined $25 million player option for 2023, becoming a free agent.
Even on the doorstep of 40, Verlander is showing few signs of slowing down. He practically lapped the field in ERA en route to his third Cy Young Award, joining Roger Clemens, Steve Carlton, Greg Maddux, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Pedro Martínez, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer to have three in his trophy case. In taking home his third award alongside his second ring with Houston, Verlander joins an even more exclusive group of pitchers to win multiple World Series, multiple Cy Young Awards, and throw multiple no-hitters alongside Koufax and Tim Lincecum.
The crazy part is that by some indications, Verlander is pitching at his highest level yet. He just gave up the lowest home run rate (0.62) since his age-27 season with the Tigers and tied 2018 for the lowest walk rate (4.4 percent) in a campaign. His fastball still operates at the same average velocity (95 mph) as his halcyon days in Detroit. Unlike many other throwers of high-velocity, high-spin four-seamers, Verlander made his hay by staying off the barrel, his 6.3 percent barrel rate the best it has been relative to the league since 2015.
It’s hard to quibble with a third Cy Young in unanimous fashion, however it is fair to acknowledge several points of regression for a man considered ancient by normal baseball terms. This season saw Verlander’s strikeout rate dip below 30 percent for the first time since his trade to Houston in 2017. Some of this might be down to a loss of spin.
This was Verlander’s first season pitching since the enforcement of the foreign substance ban, and he has lost roughly 150 RPMs off his four-seamer and 200 RPMs off his breaking balls. That caused the fastball to fall from the 97th percentile in rise in 2018 and 2019 to just the 68th percentile in 2022 — likely explaining such a sharp downturn in swing-and-miss (18.1 percent whiff rate) against the pitch — while his slider and curveball saw their whiff rates fall slightly as well.
Then again, when you have the best fastball in baseball, you can lose a little oomph off the pitch and still have it perform as an elite pitch. The same goes for the slider and curveball, both of which saw an uptick in usage to great effect — hitters produced an expected batting average below .190 against both offerings. So while he may not be quite the strikeout artist he once was, there is clearly still plenty of gas left in the tank as well as signs that Verlander is continuing to evolve even after accomplishing all there is to accomplish as a pitcher. To remain one of the premier power pitchers in the game while adding a weak contact component to his game is an encouraging sign he can sustain success well into the final chapter of his career.
If the Yankees do indeed have Verlander in their sights, he certainly will not come cheap. Some reports suggest he is looking to exceed the deal the Mets handed Max Scherzer last winter (three years, $130 million) with a chance to become the new AAV record holder. He’s obviously earned a raise over his previous deal which would have paid him $50 million over three years. Whoever signs him will have to offer multiple years will likely need to go over the $40 million per year mark.
The question is whether the Yankees will have any interest this time around. Brian Cashman notoriously balked at adding Verlander’s contract to the Yankees’ payroll during the 2017 trade deadline, and he only went and led the Astros to their first World Series win. Then this past offseason, Cashman again shied away from the monetary commitment necessary to secure Verlander, drawing the line at the inclusion of a second year. As we know, Verlander just opted out of that second year following his World Series and Cy Young wins. The Yankees’ GM passed on the future first ballot Hall of Famer twice in the past and got burned, perhaps his team will be third time lucky.