Justin Verlander has a great shot at winning the American League Cy Young award this year. He pieced together a dominant season — at age 39 — after recovering from Tommy John surgery and helped lead the Houston Astros to another World Series.
Despite the regular season dominance, Verlander once again struggled in what was his eighth Fall Classic start. A Game 1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies — the righty hurler gave up six hits and five runs in five innings of work — left the Houston Astros ace with an 0-6 record and 6.07 ERA in those eight appearances.
He has never gone deeper than six innings in any of them and his 2.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio in those games is worse than he’s had in any season since 2014 — arguably the worst season of his career.
It’s crazy to think about all the people in history with immaculate regular season records but horrendous showings in the postseason. Why does Aaron Judge go through one of the greatest regular seasons in MLB history just to record a .490 OPS while striking out 15 times come October? Why did Jorge Soler hit under the Mendoza line with the Royals in 2021, yet go berserk with Atlanta on his way to winning the World Series MVP? Why does Clayton Kershaw, arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher of our generation, have a career 4.22 ERA in the postseason and a 4.49 ERA in the World Series?
Baseball is weird, and sometimes the heroes and failures we witness in October don’t make any sense at all. Although, does any of that really affect how we perceive players? I know it might be easy to say “YES! Absolutely!” based on what we’ve seen recently, but if we really think about it, how much has postseason/World Series success really changed the public’s perception of a player?
Is Madison Bumgarner going to be enshrined in Cooperstown after he retires? Not at his current pace. If he were to reach the World Series next year and surrender 23 consecutive runs without recording an out, he’d still have a better World Series ERA than Justin Verlander, but how many of you would take prime Bumgarner over prime Verlander when building their teams? If any of you aren’t Giants fans and chose Bumgarner, I would heavily suggest getting your brain checked out. There isn’t any universe where prime Bumgarner is the better option over the course of multiple seasons. Hell, even after his incredible 2014 World Series MVP performance, when Bumgarner hype was skyrocketing faster than Elon Musk’s ego, MLB general managers still claimed that they would’ve rather had Kershaw than MadBum, and at that 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 thought of as a better pitcher than CC Sabathia. Pablo Sandoval was never considered a better hitter than Robinson Canó (OK maybe immediately following the 2009 season). And Lord knows David Freese was never on the same level as David Wright. Despite all the latter players having struggled mightily in their postseason careers, most of them are held in rather high regard in fan circles, while the earlier players might be looked back upon fondly, but never given a second thought when it comes to Hall of Fame credentials.
It goes both ways though. While postseason excellence certainly doesn’t hurt a player’s legacy, most of the time, that success becomes a footnote rather than the forefront of the player’s greatness. Unless said player had a legendarily good stretch spanning multiple postseason runs like Reggie Jackson or Derek Jeter, the postseason gets forgotten about in most players’ careers. Everybody knows Willie Mays was on-deck when Bobby Thomson hit the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” and went on to be a world champion that same year, but do we ever talk about how Mays then went on to record pretty mediocre numbers the rest of his postseason career? No. We remember 660 regular-season home runs. We remember 12 top-six MVP finishes in 13 seasons between 1954 and 1966.
When discussing Barry Bonds’ Hall of Fame credentials, do we talk about how he never won a World Series and hit .245 across 48 career postseason games? No. The discussion usually revolves around PEDs and/or him being the all-time MLB home run leader and the only member of the 500-500 club.
Justin Verlander might not have what it takes to be an elite postseason pitcher, but that doesn’t take away from anything else he’s done. Are we forgetting that he was undoubtedly the best pitcher in the American League this year? Are we forgetting that he’s a 39-year-old, soon-to-be three-time Cy Young winner who’ll likely command $25-$30 million if he hits the open market next year? No, and no amount of poor World Series starts will take away from his Hall of Fame candidacy. If we’re being real, he’d have to have a 20.00 ERA in the World Series for him to not be a first-ballot entry at this point.