For most of the 2019 season, baseball commentators have spoken about Gerrit Cole with an air of sympathy. The Houston Astros starting pitcher has put up one incredible start after the next, especially since the All-Star break, during which he logged a 1.79 ERA and was credited with eleven wins against no losses. Cole finished the season with a mind-boggling 326 strikeouts, the fourteenth-most since 1900, and he also led the league in strikeouts per nine innings.
Unfortunately for Cole, he’s accomplished this in the shadow of his teammate, Justin Verlander, who finished the season atop the league leader board across many pitching categories—wins, fewest hits and walks allowed per inning, and innings pitched among them. Oh, and on September 1, he became just the sixth pitcher in major league history to notch three career no-hitters.
Both pitchers have made robust cases for winning this season’s Cy Young Award, given to the best hurler in the American League. By all accounts, the pair will almost certainly finish first and second in voting among the baseball writers who decide the winner. For much of the year, the dominant narrative presumed Cole was destined to get beaten out by Verlander. However, Cole’s strong finish—including surpassing Verlander to claim the ERA title—tightened the race over the season’s final few weeks. There’s now a legitimate question as to which will finish on top when the results are announced in mid-November.
Jake Kaplan of the Athletic notes that a tie is possible, explaining that the thirty voting writers will each rank the five best American League pitchers, and that Verlander and Cole would need to finish first and second on all the lists (likely), with each getting fifteen votes for first (less likely). Kaplan implies that it won’t happen, but surely voting in the 21st century has taught us that anything is possible. Such a crazy ending would be the perfect way to cap a season in which two pitchers are each so deserving of a single award.
Of course, much more important than the Cy Young results is what the duo means to the Astros’ postseason run, which begins Friday afternoon with the start of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros are the odds-on favorites to claim the championship. Data-driven FanGraphs gives Houston, as of today, a 30.9 percent chance of winning the World Series. That is absurdly high for a ten-team tournament consisting of short series, in which luck plays a much greater role than during the marathon of the 162-game regular season. It’s nearly double the odds FanGraphs gives the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers, the teams the site believes are the next-most-likely champs.
FanGraphs’ enthusiasm is more understandable, of course, when you consider how stacked the Astros roster is beyond Cole and Verlander. The team’s number-three starter is former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, who was acquired at the July trade deadline. It’s insane that a player with Greinke’s resume can feel like an afterthought in the rotation, considering he owns the league’s ninth-best ERA this year, recently took a no-hit bid into the ninth inning, and is a likely future Hall of Famer. Incidentally, the Astros also pitched a second no-hitter this year, a combined effort by four pitchers, none of whom were these top three starters. In only nineteen other seasons of the 150 years of major league baseball has a team logged two no-hitters.
Of course, the Astros boast a spectacular offense as well. Third baseman Alex Bregman could well win the American League MVP award, and Yordan Álvarez has emerged as the consensus favorite to be named AL Rookie of the Year. If the Astros bats and arms can dispatch the Rays, in the next round they’ll face either the Twins or the Yankees, the only two teams in baseball who scored more runs than they did this year. Can the pitching dominance of the historically great Verlander and Cole fend off the incredible slugging of New York or Minnesota? The Astros topped the Yankees 4-3 in regular season games this year, but lost out to the Twins, 3-4.
Assuming Houston prevails in the American League playoffs, the formidable Los Angeles Dodgers likely wait at the end of the gauntlet, as most analysts see them as the favorites to outlast their competition on the National League side of the bracket. That would mean a rematch of the 2017 World Series, in which Houston triumphed in a tight and thrilling seven-game series. The Dodgers’ deep lineup and great pitching present a worrisome challenge to Houston fans—myself included.
It’s October, and in short series, anything can happen. A win may depend on a ball landing an inch fair or an inch foul. Whether another championship is to be will rely to some degree on good fortune. With 107 wins, the most in franchise history and the best record in the majors this season, the Astros were undoubtedly the best team in baseball. True believers should remember that fact, regardless of what occurs in October.
Granted, that knowledge won’t prevent me from feeling crushed should the Astros suffer a defeat. A year as glorious as 2019 has been for Houston deserves the triumph of raising a World Series banner.