Veteran's postseason credentials give young team a crucial lift
By Richard Justice
HOUSTON -- Justin Verlander gives the Astros a presence that they did not have before. That's a stretch-run presence. That's especially an October presence.
This matters, especially for a young team. The Astros already had star power in Jose Altuve, George Springer and others. Now they have more -- a wattage built over 13 seasons.
Championships are won by talent and teamwork, but they're also about poise and nerves. Verlander, who was acquired by the Astros from the Tigers for prospects Thursday night just before the midnight ET deadline for being part of a postseason roster, has been a key figure on five playoff teams.
Verlander has started 16 times in the postseason. That understanding of how October baseball is different is important. It's one pitch at a time, one inning at a time. It's a physical and emotional grind from start to finish.
Beyond that, Verlander, 34, is crafting his own Hall of Fame resume. He's an American League Cy Young Award winner who has also finished second or third four times. Verlander won the AL Most Valuable Player Award in 2011, and he is a six-time All-Star who has led the AL in innings three times and strikeouts four times -- including last season, when he had 254, his second-highest total.
There was a time a couple of years ago when it looked like all those innings and all those high-stress starts might finally have gotten the best of Verlander's right arm. He struggled like he had never struggled before. Through it all, Verlander waved away such doubts, saying he would be fine, that there was still more championship baseball left for him.
Verlander was right. He has prided himself on his last pitch of a start being his fastest. Once, in an All-Star Game, his then-teammate Prince Fielder challenged Verlander to hit 100 mph in the first inning -- and he did.
Verlander's fastball now sits nicely in the 95-97-mph area. His slider is a wicked 89 mph. Verlander has thrown a tick more curveballs, but it's a big knee-buckling thing that has made him even better.
In the past three seasons -- that's 82 starts -- Verlander has a 3.38 ERA, which is sixth best in the AL, close behind his new teammate Dallas Keuchel (3.25).
Verlander's 1.113 WHIP is the fifth lowest in the AL in that time. Only Chris Sale, Chris Archer and Corey Kluber have more strikeouts. Verlander has been at his dominating best lately, allowing two runs or fewer in five of six August starts.
Now the Astros will line up Verlander and Keuchel at the front of a postseason series and know they're good enough to take control of things. Given how good the pitching is for the Red Sox and Indians right now, that's a must.
This trade is especially important for Houston, a first-place club and runaway division winner that hasn't played its best baseball for two months.
That's why they were so disappointed about not being to do something dramatic at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. Acquisitions at this time of the season are also about giving a team an emotional lift.
The Astros are 11-17 since then. They are in no danger of losing the AL West, which they lead by 11 1/2 games. But they've struggled in all sorts of ways, including the rotation, which had a 4.83 ERA in August, ranking 20th in the Majors.
Until pulling off the deal late last night, general manager Jeff Luhnow's hope was simply to get two All-Stars, shortstop Carlos Correa and right-hander Lance McCullers Jr., back from the disabled list and be whole by mid-September.
Luhnow hoped that would get Houston back to its 68-34 best. But he also knew he needed to do something more. Luhnow had talked to his Detroit counterpart, Al Avila, for weeks about Verlander and others.
First, there were the remaining two years and $56 million on Verlander's contract. Then it was how deep would Luhnow be willing to dig into his farm system. He'd fretted on that part of the deal as he discussed a long list of other possibilities, from Jose Quintana and Sonny Gray to Brad Hand and Zach Britton.
Finally, with the Indians and Red Sox closing in on the Astros for the best record in the AL, Luhnow got to a place he was comfortable.
The Astros are going to have an emotional homecoming on Saturday afternoon, when they return to their hurricane-ravaged city to play a doubleheader against the Mets.
But they now have another reason to be excited. They are a better baseball team, a team better prepared for the postseason.
Seeing Verlander in a different uniform after 13 seasons will take some getting used to. For Astros fans, it's a transition they'll happily make.
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.