BALTIMORE — When the Houston Astros traded for veteran ace Justin Verlander on Aug. 31, 2017, one of the first things they did was sit him down in a room with members of their analytics and coaching staffs and tell him, with all the respect due to a then-six-time all-star and former American League MVP, that he could benefit from a change in repertoire — specifically, throwing more four-seam fastballs and fewer two-seamers.
If there was magic dust involved, Verlander, now 36, doesn’t recall it. What the right-hander recalls is the commitment he made to try what the Astros were suggesting, the vast amounts of data he pored over and digested, the work with his catchers and the lengthy conversations with his fellow Astros pitchers about the craft of pitching.
“Guys don’t become better pitchers because of the organization,” said Verlander, a top candidate for the AL Cy Young Award this year, with a 15-4 record and 2.68 ERA entering his start Sunday against the Baltimore Orioles. “We put a lot of emphasis on what the team does. But what the team does, what they’re good at, is letting you know what you do well and what you don’t do well — that’s it. It’s on us to do the rest.”
Verlander’s experience upon coming to the Astros two summers ago is pertinent again because the organization’s uncanny success in coaxing better results from the pitchers they acquire is back in the spotlight with the arrival of right-hander Aaron Sanchez.
With the Toronto Blue Jays this season, Sanchez, 27, had the majors’ highest ERA (6.07). In his first start since being acquired by the Astros at the July 31 trade deadline, he tossed six no-hit innings against the Seattle Mariners, the start of a four-pitcher no-hitter. Sanchez, understandably, was mostly an afterthought to Astros fans at the deadline, overshadowed by the acquisition of former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke from Arizona.
But Sanchez is only three years removed from an all-star season in which he finished seventh in voting for the AL Cy Young, and it was no coincidence that Sanchez’s Astros debut saw him throw his curveball — an elite pitch, with a spin rate among the highest (2,870 revolutions per minute) in the majors this season — more frequently than in any other start this season. (Sanchez’s second start with the Astros is scheduled for Saturday night against the Orioles.)
“I want to credit Aaron Sanchez,” Manager A.J. Hinch said after the no-hitter in Sanchez’s Astros debut, “more than I want to credit the magic dust that sometimes we sprinkle on these guys.”
Obviously, Hinch was joking about the magic dust. But Sanchez, small sample-size aside, appears poised to join the list of pitchers — including but not limited to Charlie Morton, Ryan Pressly, Gerrit Cole, Wade Miley and Verlander — who became measurably better upon joining the Astros. And if Sanchez can be that type of pitcher, it would make a scary-good team, one that entered Saturday tied with the New York Yankees at 76-40 for the best record in the AL, even scarier.
The bigger question is one of credit: Did all those pitchers become better because of the Astros or because they accepted the guidance the Astros were offering and committed themselves to becoming better on their own? The truth is almost certainly somewhere in between, but Verlander — whose ERA in two years with Houston (2.46) is almost a run better than it was in Detroit in 2016-17 (3.38) — seemed to suggest the “magic dust” narrative was getting out of hand.
“All they told me was my two-seam wasn’t as good as my four-seam,” Verlander said. “How much of a difference did it make? Well, I probably should have won the Cy Young in ’16 [instead of finishing runner-up to Boston’s Rick Porcello], and I started pitching great the last month and a half [before the trade] in Detroit in ‘17. So let’s also give credit to the players. I don’t want to get away from that.
“They don’t have some magic potion. It’s not the Astros that are making these guys great. I think they do a great job as an organization of letting us know what we do well, and I think we do a great job as players of teaching each other.”
Verlander recalled conversations during spring training in 2018 between himself, lefty Dallas Keuchel and newly acquired Astros starter Cole that would go on for as long as two hours — all about the finer points of pitching. That season, those three pitchers would be the top starters on a team that won 103 games and advanced to the ALCS for the second straight season.
“One of [Cole’s] first comments was, ‘I don’t strike that many guys out.’ And me and Dallas were like, ‘Well, we can fix that,’ ” Verlander recalled. “So is that the organization, or is that players’ willingness to learn from other players? The culture is different here because the level of analytics we’re given. That breeds those conversations more often.”
The Astros’ management, of course, must walk the fine line between touting its own track record with pitchers — which, among other tangible benefits, might make the organization more attractive to free agents — and crediting the pitchers for accepting the team’s suggestions and putting them into action.
“The player is still the most important part of all this, whether it’s someone new to us or somebody we’ve already had,” Hinch said. “It’s all individualized. We’re trying to make each pitcher the best version of himself. It’s not one size fits all. It’s not one remedy for everybody. And our efforts are really deep, from the front office to the coaches to me to the players. It’s a true team effort to bring out the best.
“You have to have a guy who’s hungry. You have to have a willing participant. Sanchez has had great performances at this level. Do we think we can make him a little bit better? Yes. Is he fixed? He wasn’t really broken. … You do need an open-mindedness to be in this organization. [But] with the success we’ve had, we often get immediate buy-in from the next guy. And that’s a healthy operation.”