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Justin Verlander to Mets - Fantasy Baseball Impact

justin verlander fantasy baseball rankings pitchers draft sleepers MLB injury news

Mets fans were dealt a blow in early December as their world-beating ace Jacob deGrom signed a five-year deal with the Texas Rangers. This left quite a large hole in the projected rotation for 2023, but Mets brass wasted very little time replacing deGrom with another bonafide ace, signing Justin Verlander to a massive two-year deal.

The per-year dollar amount is just crazy here, and even crazier when you realize that Verlander will be 40 on Opening Day, but it's not like Verlander hasn't earned it.

Let's talk about the new situation we have here and what to think about Verlander for fantasy baseball purposes in 2023.


Justin Verlander - A Return for the Ages

In 2019, Verlander threw 223 innings with the Astros and had a sparkling year with a 2.58 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP. After that, things seemed to fall apart. Verlander managed just six innings in 2020 before going on the shelf with an arm issue. An elbow injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery cost him the entire 2021 season.

That left fantasy managers in a pickle ahead of the 2022 season. We knew that Verlander would be back in the Astros rotation as the season opened up, but we were looking at a 39-year-old coming off of major surgery that hadn't played competitive baseball with any significant volume for two and a half years. It was pretty hard to believe that anybody could go through all of that and come back and be an ace again, but boy did Verlander prove the doubters wrong.

He made 28 starts and threw 175 innings for Houston, posting a 1.75 ERA with a 0.83 WHIP on his way to another Cy Young award. He added 18 wins to his Cy Young career's total and kept on keeping on with yet another K%-BB% above 20% (23.4%).


How Did Justin Verlander Do It?

In the special case of Verlander, it almost feels appropriate to just throw the numbers out of the window. Almost. Verlander may have perfected the art of pitching better than anybody else in human history, which means that we should expect him to outdo what his advanced/peripheral stats suggest, but I'm not mentally capable of making myself actually ignore the numbers, so let's talk about a few points of interest.

The best predictor of success is K%-BB%. Verlander was good in that category with that 23.4% mark which ranked 12th in the league among pitchers with 20 or more starts. The walk rate at 4.4% really buoyed that mark, but his strikeout rate was high as well at 27.8%.

Two pretty decent predictors of K% are CSW% and SwStr%, and this is where Verlander's performance was pretty lackluster. Among qualified pitchers, just 11 pitchers put up strikeout rates above 27% and walk rates under 8%, here is that list along with each pitcher's CSW% and SwStr%:

Pitcher K% BB% CSW% SwStr%
Shane McClanahan 30.4% 5.6% 34.2% 17.0%
Gerrit Cole 32.4% 6.3% 34.0% 16.4%
Aaron Nola 29.2% 3.5% 33.6% 13.8%
Corbin Burnes 30.5% 6.4% 33.4% 16.3%
Shohei Ohtani 33.2% 6.7% 32.8% 16.2%
Brandon Woodruff 30.6% 6.8% 32.3% 15.4%
Carlos Rodon 33.4% 7.3% 32.0% 15.5%
Kevin Gausman 30.7% 3.9% 30.7% 16.4%
Luis Castillo 29.6% 7.3% 29.6% 13.7%
Robbie Ray 28.4% 8.0% 28.4% 15.4%
Justin Verlander 27.9% 4.4% 27.9% 13.0%

We see Verlander being dead last on the list in both of those input statistics. We also don't see him being on top of the list in terms of guys that are painting corners. Verlander threw 7.5% of his pitches in the "middle-middle" part of the strikezone. That mark was the 69th-best out of 124 qualified pitchers.

In terms of "stuff", nothing really stands out that strongly either:

More underwhelming marks on the SwStr% here. The mark on his four-seamer was 0.3 points below the league average, but his slider did come in 2.5 points above the league average. In terms of CSW%, the four-seamer was almost four points below the league average and the slider was right at the league average.

But despite all of this "bad" news, we see very convincing numbers in terms of tamping down quality of contact. His xwOBA (expected wOBA by opposing hitters) was fourth-best in the league at .255, and his xwOBA on contact was eight-best at .327.

Intangibles certainly exist, and all signs point to Verlander being one of the best pitchers in recent history at excelling at these intangible things.


What Do We Do for Fantasy Baseball

Verlander is going to be costly in drafts. In the very early NFBC drafts, on average he has been the 11th starter off of the board. Here is that full list just for fun:

  1. Corbin Burnes
  2. Gerrit Cole
  3. Sandy Alcantara
  4. Dylan Cease
  5. Brandon Woodruff
  6. Jacob deGrom
  7. Spencer Strider
  8. Shane McClanahan
  9. Aaron Nola
  10. Julio Urias
  11. Justin Verlander

Going from the Astros to the Mets isn't much of a change, so I don't think this signing will impact the ADP, although Mets pitchers will probably face a slightly tougher schedule in 2023 as compared to Astros pitchers, but the difference is likely to be so small so as to be negligible.

Drafting Verlander as your fantasy team's ace to me is a slight leap of faith. Intangibles and experience and track record are important, to be sure, but so are the underlying numbers and the impact of father time. Drafting Verlander with one of your first four picks is putting a lot of chips on a 40-year-old pitcher who seems to have significantly over-performed last season. I do expect the strikeout rate to come down, and I would expect him to get hit a bit harder next year as well because of it.

Given the high bar he set in 2022, he would need a whole lot of regression to slide him out of the category of fantasy ace, I'm not suggesting that's going to be the result - but I am suggesting that I'd much prefer the McClanahan's and Nola's of the world if the prices are very similar, which they are. It shouldn't be shocking to anybody if Verlander wins another Cy Young award in 2023, but I think there's enough downside to justify a fade at his current price.

That's my take, let the debate begin! Thanks for being with us here as we continue to churn out fantasy baseball content around the clock.

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