Houston Astros

Verlander vs. Cole for AL Cy Young shaping up to be great debate of the season

The American League Cy Young Award winner plays for the Houston Astros, but will it be Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander?

In most prior seasons, the American League Cy Young Award winner would already be decided.

Houston Astros right-hander Gerrit Cole, with his league-leading 281 strikeouts and 16 wins, would’ve solidified his hold on the award with a spectacular start on Sunday. Pitching on his 29th birthday, Cole struck out 15 Seattle Mariners and allowed only one hit, a short fly ball by Shed Long that just found its way into the Crawford Boxes in left field, in a 21-1 Astros victory.

But the 2019 season isn’t like most years, and Cole only has to look inside his own clubhouse to find his closest competition. Just a week earlier, another Astros right-hander, Justin Verlander, looked to wrap up the award with his third career no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays.

The race between Cole and Verlander for the Cy Young is shaping up to last right until the closing days of the season. Houston only has 18 games left on their schedule, so both pitchers will likely get only get three more starts to make their case.

Let’s start with Cole. He leads the AL with 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings and now has double-digit strikeouts in five straight games, all Astros wins. He’s 3-0 in that span with a 2.14 ERA, striking out 65 in 33.2 innings. He hasn’t lost a start since May 22, going 12-0 with an ERA under two. On Sunday against the Mariners, he became only the third pitcher in history with 15 strikeouts in a game while allowing only one base runner. He’s the second pitcher after Pedro Martinez with at least 14 strikeouts in three straight starts.

Verlander, meanwhile, hasn’t allowed more than two earned runs in his last five starts, going 3-1 with a 1.21 ERA including the no-hitter in Toronto. The 36-year-old leads the AL with 18 wins and a 2.52 ERA, with a hits per nine innings rate and WHIP that are the best of his 15-year career. He’s third in the AL in strikeouts per nine innings, behind only Cole and Boston’s Chris Sale, and trails only Cole with 264 strikeouts.

Together, they are on base to pull off a feat that no teammates have done in nearly 40 years. Verlander and Cole are currently the only two starting pitchers in baseball with a WHIP under 1.0. Don Sutton and Jerry Reuss with the 1980 Dodgers were the last teammates to finish the season one-two in WHIP. Verlander and Cole are also atop the rankings for hits allowed per nine innings.

Having two teammates both with such dominant seasons isn’t unprecedented, but it is rare. Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling twice finished as the winner and runner-up in Cy Young balloting with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the only time a team had two starters first and second. It’s never happened in the American League.

Where the two Astros aces diverge is on their trophy case. Verlander is already a former Cy Young Award winner, taking home the award in 2011 with the Detroit Tigers. Cole, though, has never won, and what better time for him to do so than in the year before he hits free agency.

It’s becoming difficult to separate the two, but if the race makes them both pitch better the rest of the season and into the playoffs, the Astros won’t be complaining.

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