Sean Pendergast

Where do Verlander and Valdez Rank Among Astros Dynamic Pitching Duos?

Framber Valdez has become an elite pitcher this season, making his first All Star team.
Framber Valdez has become an elite pitcher this season, making his first All Star team. Photo by Jack Gorman
Since becoming the gold standard for title contending baseball in the American League in 2017, one staple of the Houston Astros has always been the presence of at least two viable, minimally very good (but typically "ace" level) starting pitchers at the top of the rotation. They've come in many shapes and backgrounds — from home grown farmhands to major trade acquisitions, from born and bred Americans to Latin American rising stars.

This season, the Astros two-headed hammer at the top of the pitching rotation encapsulates so much diversity of background in two pitching bodies. This season, the dynamic duo is Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez, two All Stars with completely different makeups. Verlander is an American-born, former high draft pick, acquired via trade in 2017, while Valdez was signed as an international prospect, and has finally risen to ace status after many seasons of bumpy roads.

As Astros pitching pairings go, for all their differences in style and background, Verlander and Valdez have been as good as it gets. In fact, let's examine that statement and see where exactly they stack up compared to top duos of previous seasons. Here we go:

6. 2020 Season
TOP DUO: ZACK GREINKE / FRAMBER VALDEZ
TOP DUO WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT: Greinke 1.1, Valdez 1.2

OTHERS of NOTE: Lance McCullers, Cristian Javier
This is the toughest group to process and nail down a definitive "top two." It was the COVID season, so you're talking about a 60-game regular season in which the Astros actually finished below .500. Of course, they did make a run to Game 7 of the ALCS. Either way, though, the nature of this season didn't lend itself to any of the starters separating themselves as more than anything than slightly above average. I'm designating Greinke and Valdez as the best two, but neither was close to dominant. This is the most underwhelming rotation of this era.

5. 2021 Season
TOP DUO: LANCE McCULLERS / LUIS GARCIA
TOP DUO WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT: McCullers 3.4, Garcia 2.6
OTHERS of NOTE: Framber Valdez, Zack Greinke, Jose Urquidy
The 2021 rotation was made up of largely the same group as 2020, with the significant addition of rookie Luis Garcia for a full season. McCullers was the leader of the staff with 13 wins and 185 strikeouts, and three more starters, including Garcia, added 11 wins apiece. Garcia finished as runner up for AL Rookie of the Year. Sadly, the postseason run ended with McCullers on the shelf with an elbow injury suffered against the White Sox in the ALDS.

4. 2017 Season
TOP DUO: JUSTIN VERLANDER / DALLAS KUECHEL
TOP DUO WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT: Verlander 1.8, Keuchel 3.9
OTHERS of NOTE: Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock, Lance McCullers
This duo is all about the postseason, as Verlander only pitched one month for the Astros in the 2017 regular season after being acquired in a trade with the Tigers. Granted, in that one month, Verlander went 5-0 with a microscopic 1.06 ERA, and then carried that into the postseason, where he was the ALCS MVP. Of the other full season hurlers for the Astros, I'll designate Kuechel as Verlander's top duo tag team partner, even though McCullers was an All Star, and Morton and Peacock won 14 and 13 games, respectively. Keuchel, though, leveled off greatly (for the rest of his career, really) after a 9-0 start to the season.

3. 2018 Season
TOP DUO: JUSTIN VERLANDER / GERRIT COLE
TOP DUO WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT: Verlander 6.3, Cole 5.2
OTHERS of NOTE: Charlie Morton, Dallas Kuechel, Lance McCullers

This was where the Astros starting pitching really started to approach elite levels, so much so that their two All Stars from the season before — Keuchel and McCullers — were essentially their fourth and fifth best guys. While Morton was a sparkling 15-3 on the year, Verlander and Cole were the two hammers at the top, and would be for this season and the next. More on that in a minute.

2. 2022 Season
TOP DUO: JUSTIN VERLANDER / FRAMBER VALDEZ
TOP DUO WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT: Verlander 2.6, Valdez 2.2
OTHERS of NOTE: Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, Jose Urquidy
Verlander is a frontrunner for the Cy Young Award (again), and Valdez has been a "quality start" machine, having gone 14 straight starts of at least six innings while giving up three runs or less in each outing. As an aside, this is definitely the deepest overall rotation of this era. Every other rotation listed here contains a sizable drop-off after three (sometimes four) starters. 2022's rotation is a stable of studs.

1. 2019 Season
TOP DUO: JUSTIN VERLANDER / GERRIT COLE
TOP DUO WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT: Verlander 7.4, Cole 6.6
OTHERS of NOTE: Zack Greinke, Jose Urquidy, Wade Miley
This top duo each won 20 or more games, each struck out 300 or more batters, and finished numbers 1 and 2 in the AL Cy Young voting. Verlander and Cole were sublime. Amazingly, the team still needed to acquire Greinke at the trade deadline to make their run to Game 7 of the World Series, as the drop-off from the top two to the next starter was an "off the side of a cliff" drop-off.

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts the morning drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the pre-game and post game shows for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast