Houston Astros, MLB

Why Justin Verlander’s looming free agency will be like no other

In most cases calling an athlete a ‘unicorn’ is an overused trope, but in the case of Justin Verlander it fits perfectly.

Verlander is a lot of things. Among them: 39 years old, the undisputed ace of one of the best rotations in baseball and he’s going to be a free agent when the season ends.

The six innings that Justin Verlander spent baffling the Cleveland Guardians Thursday were more than just another six innings in the 3,118 in the future Hall of Famer’s career.

Not only did Verlander hold Cleveland scoreless — allowing only two hits and a walk, while striking out five on 96 pitches — but by reaching 130 innings on the season, Verlander triggered the player option clause that allows him an out for his $25 million deal with the Astros for 2023.

As a 39-year-old, future Hall of Famer, free agent to be, coming off Tommy John surgery, Verlander is indeed a unicorn in the sport. There are no previous precedents for such a player to hit the open market.

What’s the price for a 39-year-old Justin Verlander who’s having a career year?

If that weren’t enough, the year Verlander is putting together after not pitching for more than 600 days would be remarkable for a pitcher in their prime, much less a man that’ll turn 40 before next season begins.

Verlander is 15-3 in 20 starts and almost every number he’s accumulated at this advanced stage of his career are better than his career averages.  A 1.73 ERA is almost half of his career mark of 3.26, an ERA+ of 221 dwarfs a career mark of 131, an FIP of 2.98 is lower than a career average of 3.39, he’s given up less walks, less hits and less home runs per 9 innings than his career averages.

The advanced metrics are good, too.  While Verlander’s pitched with some luck on his 95.0 MPH average four seam fastball that sits at a -16 run value, his slider (.205 xBA), curve (.167 xBA) and changeup (.140 xBA) that he uses a combined 49.6 percent of the time are at a -13 run value.

Meanwhile his wOBA is in the top 4 percent of the league and his BB percentage is in the top 6 percent of the league, with both numbers being better than the season immediately preceding injury and better than his career averages.

Everything is working.

In short, at age 39, coming off Tommy John surgery, Justin Verlander is having a career year and will be a free agent at the end of the season.

If Gerrit Cole is worth $36 million AAV and a 38-year-old Max Scherzer is worth $43.3 million AAV, what is Verlander’s worth on the open market after the season he’s putting together?

No one knows, because it’s never happened before.

It’ll be a fascinating case in the offseason: Who will pay and how much will they pay for a Verlander that has defied both the calendar and knife and wants to continue pitching for several more years?

What’s the price for a unicorn?

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