AL’s probable winner Cy Young didn’t look well in Game 1 of the World SeriesImage: Getty Images
Justin Verlander has a good chance of winning the American League Cy Young Award this year. He put together a dominant season — at age 39 — after recovering from Tommy John surgery and helped lead the Houston Astros to another World Series.
Despite dominating the regular season, Verlander struggled again in his eighth Fall Classic start. A Game 1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies — the right hurler giving up six hits and five runs in five innings of work — left the Houston Astros ace with a 0-6 record and 6.07 ERA in those eight appearances.
He hasn’t gone deeper than six innings in any of them, and his 2.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio in those games is worse than any season since 2014 — arguably the worst season of his career.
It’s crazy to think of all the people in history with flawless records in the regular season but terrible performances in the postseason. Why is Aaron Judge going through one of the greatest regular seasons in MLB history only to hit a .490 OPS 15 times in October? Why did Jorge Soler batter under the Mendoza line with the Royals in 2021 but ran away with Atlanta en route to winning the World Series MVP? Why does Clayton Kershaw, arguably the greatest left-hander of our generation, have a career 4.22 postseason ERA and a 4.49 ERA in the World Series?
Baseball is weird, and sometimes the heroes and failures we see in October don’t make any sense at all. But does that really affect how we perceive players? I know it could be easy, “YES! Definitely!” Based on what we’ve seen recently, but if we really think about it, how much has post-season/World Series success really changed the public’s perception of a player?
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Will Madison Bumgarner be anchored in Cooperstown after his retirement? Not at his current pace. If he made it to the World Series next year and went 23 straight runs without an out, he’d still have a better World Series ERA than Justin Verlander, but how many of you would choose Prime Bumgarner over Prime Verlander when building your teams? If any of you aren’t Giants fans and chose Bumgarner, I’d highly recommend getting your brain checked. There is no universe where Prime Bumgarner is the better option across multiple seasons. Hell, even after his incredible MVP performance at the 2014 World Series, when the Bumgarner hype was skyrocketing faster than Elon Musk’s ego, MLB executives still maintained that they would rather have had Kershaw than MadBum, and on this one At one point in his career, Kershaw had a 5.12 postseason ERA and had never appeared in a World Series.
The same goes for others in similar boats. Cole Hamels was never seriously considered a better pitcher than CC Sabathia. Pablo Sandoval was never considered a better hitter than Robinson Canó (OK maybe immediately after the 2009 season). And god knows, David Freese was never on the same level as David Wright. Although all of the latter players have struggled mightily in their postseason careers, most of them are held in fairly high regard by fan circles, while the earlier players may be looked back on fondly but never give it a second thought when it comes to the Hall of fame goes references.
But it goes both ways. While post-season excellence certainly doesn’t hurt a player’s legacy, most of the time that achievement becomes a footnote rather than the pinnacle of the player’s greatness. Unless said player had a legendary streak spanning multiple postseason runs like Reggie Jackson or Derek Jeter, the postseason is forgotten in most players’ careers. Everyone knows Willie Mays was on deck when Bobby Thomson got the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” and became world champion that same year, but do we ever talk about how Mays then picked up pretty mediocre numbers for the rest of his postseason career? no We remember 660 home runs in the regular season. We recall 12 top six MVP finishes in 13 seasons between 1954 and 1966.
In discussing Barry Bonds’ Hall of Fame credentials, are we talking about the fact that he never won a World Series and hit .245 in 48 postseason games of his career? no The discussion usually revolves around PEDs and/or him as the all-time MLB home run leader and sole member of the 500-500 club.
Justin Verlander may not have what it takes to be an elite postseason pitcher, but that doesn’t take away from his other accomplishments. Have we forgotten that he was hands down the American League’s best pitcher this year? Are we forgetting he’s a 39-year-old, soon-to-be three-time Cy Young winner who’s likely to rake in $25-$30 million when it hits the open market next year? No, and no amount of World Series starts will diminish his candidacy for the Hall of Fame. If we’re being honest, he would have to have a 20.00 ERA in the World Series for him not to be on the first ballot at this point.