One of the more remarkable realities in Major League Baseball right now is that a Cy Young Award winner and six-time All-Star is only slated to be the Houston Astros' No. 3 starter in the postseason.
With all due respect to Zack Greinke, that's simply the right call based on how Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole have pitched in 2019.
Whether because of his no-hitter on Sept. 1 or any of the other dominant starts he's had en route to his American League-best 2.50 ERA and 283 strikeouts over an MLB-best 212 innings, Verlander has probably been the subject of more headlines throughout the season.
"These performances that he just rattles off is not easy," Astros manager AJ Hinch said of Cole, according to MLB.com's Brian McTaggart. "He makes it look a lot easier than it is."
Though Cole ranks behind Verlander with a 2.61 ERA and 200.1 innings, he tops his fellow ace and everyone else with 302 punchouts. What's more, his rate of 13.6 strikeouts per nine innings is the best single-season qualified mark in MLB history.
Though Charlie Morton, Mike Minor, Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito and Shane Bieber should get some consideration, Verlander and Cole will likely occupy the top two slots in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
If so, it will be the first time two teammates have accomplished the feat since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling did so in back-to-back seasons in the National League Cy Young Award voting in 2001 and 2002.
Verlander and Cole have already led the Astros to their third straight 100-win season. Soon the question will be whether they can carve their way through October as if they're, well, Johnson and Schilling.
There are good reasons why Johnson's and Schilling's performances for the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 playoffs are still legendary. Together, they logged a 1.30 ERA and 103 strikeouts over 89.2 innings. They were also the co-MVPs of a dramatic World Series win over the New York Yankees.
If anything, the '01 Johnson-Schilling show only looks more impressive in the context of modern baseball.
Because of general workload concerns and the dreaded times-through-the-order penalty, front offices and managers have significantly shortened the leashes on starters in recent years. So much so that 200-inning workhorses are going extinct. Verlander and Cole are two of only four such hurlers in baseball right now. That's currently the fewest of any non-strike-shortened season.
The leashes only get shorter come October. There were just 19 starts of at least six innings in the 2018 postseason, the fewest since the Division Series round was introduced in 1995. And that number will probably continue to come down in this year's postseason.
Heck, the Yankees have already decided against going with a traditional starting rotation. According to Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, their plan is to "piggyback" starters and relievers so that no single pitcher gets too exposed.
It's beyond a safe guess, however, that the Astros won't do anything of the sort with their rotation. Least of all with Verlander and Cole, who don't need any trickery to overwhelm opposing hitters.
As opposed to Johnson, a power left-hander who thrived on his fastball and slider, and Schilling, a power right-hander who thrived on his fastball and splitter, Verlander and Cole are indeed remarkably similar pitchers. They're both power righties who live on four-seamers, sliders and curveballs.
In fact, here's where their total percentage of those three pitches rank among AL starters:
- 1. Gerrit Cole: 90.1 percent
- 2. Justin Verlander: 89.9 percent
This could hypothetically be a disadvantage in a short postseason series. Once a team has seen Verlander's stuff, it might be better prepared for Cole's stuff in the next game.
But if there were any truth to this, Cole's work in the regular season wouldn't measure up to Verlander's as well it does. That gets at the fundamental truth that, similar as their repertoires may be, their pitches are simply too good and too well utilized.
The two hurlers also don't feature much of a command gap. There's only a slight difference in their walks-per-nine rates and virtually no difference in their strike-zone percentages. Ultimately, both are evidence of a common preference to challenge hitters with their best stuff.
"I can't hit corners at 90-93 mph because every pitch in the strike zone can be hit for a home run. To any part of the field. By any batter," Verlander explained to Bob Nightengale of USA Today. "So I need to change how I pitch. It used to be missing barrels or getting guys off balance. Now, it's missing bats."
Granted, not every opponent these two have faced posed a serious threat. Yet they held strong even in the face of the two most homer-happy offenses in MLB history. In six starts against the Yankees and Minnesota Twins, the two aces combined for a 2.41 ERA and 47 strikeouts over 41 innings.
None of this guarantees Verlander and Cole will actually pull a Johnson and Schilling in October. That would imply baseball is something it most certainly is not: predictable.
But if ever there were a duo that could break the contemporary mold and live up to that particular legend, it's this one.