It took Justin Verlander just 2 hours and 36 minutes to dispatch the Angels on Wednesday night, striking out seven in a five-hit shutout. We’ve come to expect this sort of thing since Verlander was traded to Houston last August, but it was especially impressive given the team that was on the receiving end of this particular batch of cruelty.
Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani combined to go 0-for-8, with Ohtani especially getting just mercilessly owned throughout the night. He struck out three times, most helplessly in an overwhelming three-pitch at-bat in the ninth inning that pushed Verlander over 2,500-mark in career strikeouts. Earlier in the game, Verlander served up this buckling slider, which led to Ohtani nearly snapping his ankle on a check swing:
Peak Verlander is Peak Verlander, but the Astros’ rotation also does this sort of thing on a weekly basis by now. There’s something greedy about a great team improving upon its only shortcomings immediately after winning a championship, especially given that they might well have entered the season as the default favorite to win it all over again even without going to all that trouble. But this is exactly what the Astros did, of course, and goddamnit they look invincible.
Verlander’s the clear focal point here, as he’s been right back around his former MVP form since being traded to Houston, where he has put up a 1.36 ERA, 0.725 WHIP, and 165 punchouts in 21 appearances, including the postseason. But it’s the other guys whose early season run is at least as stunning: Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton sit right behind Verlander in American League ERA lead this season—in order, it goes 1.05, 1.75, and 2.03. Both Pirates expats have far exceeded their output with that team and appear to be easing into the breakouts they never quite got around to having in Pittsburgh. Cole’s trade looked moronic on arrival, as his pedigree and stuff suggested that he could always be an ace; the Pirates moving on from Morton seemed a little less so, since he could never harness the 98 mph two-seamer until he made it to Houston. You have perhaps noticed that we haven’t even gotten to Lance McCullers Jr. and Dallas Keuchel yet, both of whom could slot in as a no. 1 or 2 starter on most teams across the league and both which have pitched about as well as can be expected. There isn’t a discernible weak point in the rotation thus far, or any easy—or even attainable-seeming—way to beat them.
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The Astros are smoking the league in damn near every team pitching category, with a team ERA of 2.44—nearly a full run lower than the Diamondbacks, who are down in second place—the most quality starts, the lowest BAA, and most strikeouts. They’re getting invaluable length from their starters, too, with both Verlander and Cole placing top five across the league in innings pitched. It’s a small thing in an era of hand-wringing over most starters struggling to get through the seventh inning, but the Astros already have three complete games this year—two more than they had all of last year.
Science knower Trevor Bauer has some cosmic and largely unproven theories as to how the Astros are pulling off this coup with such a remarkable amount of found money, but there’s also the possibility that the team with last year’s most potent offense simply figured the other side of the ball out all at once. These things tend to happen for great teams, and the Astros made clear last season that they’re one of those. Now just imagine what they’ll do if José Altuve gets his power back. Shit.