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Justin Verlander has figured out how to thrive with the homer-happy new MLB baseball

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The Astros star right-handed pitcher leads MLB in homers allowed, but he’s still having a great season

League Championship Series - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Justin Verlander has allowed more home runs than any other pitcher in the majors. He’s also having a fantastic season right in line with his Hall of Fame career. Like many greats before him, Verlander has adapted to his environment, and in 2019 he has turned baseball on its ear.

Through 22 starts this season, the Astros right-hander has allowed 28 home runs, three more than any other MLB pitcher. He also has a 2.86 ERA and leads the majors with 13 wins and a 0.836 WHIP. Verlander even started the All-Star Game for the American League, the second time he’s done that.

“I’m a fly-ball pitcher,” Verlander told reporters after a start on July 14. “If I start trying to be a sinkerballer, it doesn’t work. My goal is to try to miss as many bats as I can. That’s what the game’s turned into.”

Home runs are being hit at ridiculous rates in 2019 with 1.38 long balls per team each game. That’s 9.5 percent more than the next-highest year in baseball history (2017). With over two months still to be played this season, there are already more home runs hit this season (4,215) than during the entire 2014 campaign (4,186).

The baseball itself is different this year, with dramatically lower seams, smoother leather, and a rounder ball contributing greatly to the massive increase in home runs. That information comes from a study by Dr. Meredith Wills, published at The Athletic in June.

Verlander at the All-Star Game in Cleveland expressed his displeasure at the change in baseball:

“Major League Baseball’s turning this game into a joke. They own Rawlings, and you’ve got Manfred up here saying it might be the way they center the pill. They own the f---ing company. If any other $40 billion company bought out a $400 million company and the product changed dramatically, it’s not a guess as to what happened. We all know what happened. Manfred the first time he came in, what’d he say? He said we want more offense. All of a sudden he comes in, the balls are juiced? It’s not coincidence. We’re not idiots.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred denied Verlander’s allegation during All-Star festivities.

“]The league] has done nothing, given no direction for an alteration in the baseball,” Manfred said. “There is no desire on part of ownership to increase the number of home runs in the game.”

In 2014, Verlander allowed 18 home runs over the entire season, but also had one of his worst years, with a 4.54 ERA in 32 starts for Detroit. His adjusted ERA+ was just 85 that year, one of two times in 14 seasons Verlander was below average. This year, even with those league-high 28 homers allowed, Verlander has a 156 ERA+. In other words, his ERA when adjusted for park and league is roughly 56 percent better than average.

Verlander ranks second in the AL with his 2.86 ERA, trailing former teammate Charlie Morton now with the Rays, and Verlander’s ERA+ is third in the league. Nobody in the live ball era (1920-present) has led his league in both home runs allowed and ERA in the same season.

The best season by ERA+ for any pitcher to lead his league in home runs allowed was Curt Schilling in 2001, who paced the National League with 37 home runs while posting a 157 ERA+. Schilling ranked second in the NL in both ERA (2.96) and ERA+ that year behind teammate Randy Johnson, who put up a 187 ERA+ despite allowing 30 home runs. Johnson recorded the best season by any pitcher with 30 home runs on his ledger.

Best seasons by a 30-home run pitcher

Pitcher Year HR ERA ERA+
Pitcher Year HR ERA ERA+
Randy Johnson 1999 30 2.48 184
Juan Marichal 1966 32 2.23 167
Curt Schilling 2001 37 2.98 157
Denny McLain 1968 31 1.96 154
Robin Roberts 1953 30 2.75 153
Source: Baseball-Reference

What sets Verlander apart this year is how hard it has been to score off him without the home run. Twenty-two of his 28 homers allowed are solo shots, and opponents have scored 35 total runs off those long balls. He has allowed only 13 other runs all season.

When not connecting on a home run, opposing batters are hitting just .125 against him (62 hits in 493 at-bats). Opponents overall are hitting just .173/.224/.378. While his batting average on balls in play is just .199, which suggests Verlander has been lucky, his batted ball data through Statcast shows an expected batting average of .190 and an expected slugging percentage of .365.

Verlander has also been unlucky in that more of his fly balls are resulting in home runs, 17.7 percent of them this year compared to just 9 percent in his career and never more than 11.5 percent in any other season of his career. His fastball has been getting hit the hardest, with batters slugging .544 off his most-used pitch. But Verlander’s other offerings — his slider, curve and changeup, which account for just over half his pitches, have produced a minuscule .242 slugging percentage, keeping hitters off balance and keeping runs off the board.

No pitcher has ever allowed home runs in a quarter of his hits in a season with enough innings to qualify for the league leaderboards. The closest was Sid Fernandez, who in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign allowed 27 home runs among his 109 hits, at 24.77 percent.

This year Verlander’s home runs account for 31.1 percent of his hits.

Most home runs as a percentage of hits

Pitcher Year HR Hits HR/hits
Pitcher Year HR Hits HR/hits
Justin Verlander 2019 28 90 31.11%
Sid Fernandez 1994 27 109 24.77%
Ervin Santana 2012 39 165 23.64%
Yu Darvish 2019 21 91 23.08%
Herb Score 1959 28 123 22.76%
Among pitchers with enough innings to qualify for a batting title. Source: Baseball-Reference

With 28 home runs allowed and just 48 total runs allowed, Verlander is on pace to do something nobody has ever done — have his home runs total at least half of his runs allowed. As of now, the record is held by Clayton Kershaw, Verlander’s 2017 World Series opponent.

Kershaw, also a future Hall of Famer, had a homer-happy season two years ago. He allowed 23 home runs but only 49 total runs, or 46.9 percent. (Verlander is at 58.3 percent so far in 2019). Kershaw led the league in both ERA (2.31) and ERA+ (179) that year.

Kershaw allowed 34 runs on those 23 home runs two years ago, and that continued during October when he allowed a postseason-record eight home runs. Eleven runs scored on those homers, and he allowed 14 total runs all postseason (a 3.82 ERA). In total, Kershaw allowed 45 runs on his 31 home runs allowed all year, with 63 total runs allowed. Kershaw’s home runs accounted for 71.4 percent of his total runs allowed in 2017.

This year, Verlander has allowed 35 runs via the home run, and 48 total runs, so he’s even outpacing Kershaw, at 72.9 percent. The lesson here: you might be able to tag Verlander for the occasional long ball, but good luck scoring against him without the home run.