HOUSTON -- If Astros right-hander Justin Verlander had put together these kind of second-half numbers in the first half of the season, he'd likely be in the American League Cy Young Award conversation. Verlander's second half has been nearly as good as Indians ace Corey Kluber and better than Red Sox left-hander Chris Sale. Verlander will be the starter when the Astros take on Sale the Red Sox today in Game 1 of the AL Division Series presented by Doosan.
In his final 16 starts of the regular season, Verlander went 10-3 with a 1.92 ERA, 127 strikeouts and 26 walks in 108 innings. That includes a terrific five-start run since being traded from the Tigers to the Astros in which he's 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA with 43 strikeouts and five walks in 34 innings. In his first 17 starts of the season with Detroit, Verlander was 5-5 with a 4.96 ERA to go with 92 strikeouts and 47 walks in 98 innings.
On Wednesday, Verlander described his Game 1 assignment as "a great honor," noting that having more than one option to pitch the opener reflects well on the strength of the rotation.
"I've been lucky to be part of some pretty great pitching staffs where anybody can go No. 1 the first game and you don't feel like your team's any different than if the other guy goes No. 1," he said. "I think that's a situation we have here, and it's a great situation to be in because even though you're going Game 1, the weight of the world doesn't fall on your shoulders to have to win that game. You know the guy behind you [Dallas Keuchel] is just as good as the guy behind him."
Since July 8, Verlander's ERA ranks second in the Major Leagues to Kluber's 1.79, while Sale ranks 11th with a 3.12 ERA in that time frame. Verlander said last week a change in his arm mechanics -- a "transition in the way that I throw" -- has returned him to dominance.
"Early on, I knew things weren't quite right and it took a while -- a lot longer than I would have liked -- to figure out what that was," Verlander said. "It took me almost the better part of three months. It's one of the things in baseball, you can't look backwards. You have to look forward. I was constantly searching for it, and once it clicked, it was good to go. I was feeling good and pitching much better since the All-Star break."
A closer look at the numbers reveals Verlander's pitch usage, velocity and spin rate on his pitches are essentially the same from the first half to the second, but his expected batting average against (which is based on hit probability and removes defense from the equation) and actual batting average against, for both his four-seam and slider, are lower since joining the Astros:
With Detroit (4-seam): .252 xBA, .222 BA With Houston (4-seam): .206 xBA, .155 BA With Detroit (slider): .199 xBA, .238 BA With Houston (slider): .182 xBA, .132 BA
Since the All-Star break, against Verlander's four-seam fastball, batters hit just .157 (second-lowest in MLB among starting pitchers with a minimum of 30 at-bats) and slugged just .258 (third-lowest). In the first half, those numbers were .260 (67th of 171 pitchers) and .370 (27th of 171).
"I think that's the main goal, just be able to keep your feel, be able to come into the start, and be consistent," Verlander said. "As a starting pitcher, that's what it's about. I'm going to do whatever I can to help maintain my mechanics and the feel on the mound."
Verlander is 2-0 with a 1.88 ERA in four starts against the Red Sox in the last two seasons. He faced them twice this year with the Tigers, and he allowed three earned runs and eight hits in 12 innings (2.25 ERA). Boston batted .190 against Verlander this year. But in the playoffs, Verlander says things are different.
"You can't get prepared for it," he said. "You have to experience it by being out there and feeling the adrenaline, and experiencing it for yourself."
Having postseason experience doesn't hurt. Verlander has pitched in five postseasons, including two World Series.
"I definitely think there is some value in it," he said. "Just more along the lines of knowing what to expect. Knowing what I'm going to deal with ... how I'm going to feel during the start, how much more emphasis and stress is put on every single pitch, knowing those things can help me prepare better."
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.