If anyone was taking bets these past few years on when aging ace Justin Verlander would finally falter, my money was on, "The Literal Second He Left the Houston Astros."
Turns out, things are tougher when you're 40 years old, adjusting to new rules, and thousands of miles away from a world-renowned magical pitching laboratory for the first time since August 2017.
Every MLB team has their inherent advantages and disadvantages. The Mets' advantage? Steve Cohen's wallet is bottomless, and he's always willing to throw more money in the direction of a previous mistake. Add in his desire to be the league's centerpiece and his thirst for world-class facilities, and any star's time with the Mets should be comfortable/involve contention.
The Astros' advantage? Their web of "innovation" goes beyond their extremely famous and inelegant trash can banging scandal. From Trackman data to heart monitors to, uh, whatever bucket of mudpitching coach Brent Strom used to pass around, Houston has always been one step ahead of the league since just about the time Verlander joined them.
While it might sound like hateration, Strom purportedly was MLB's leader in the clubhouse in terms of revamping pitchers' arsenals using foreign substances. According to Evan Drellich's "Winning Isn't Everything," the Astros' plan for rejuvenating pitchers (and likely the reason they were so confident in acquiring a struggling Verlander in '17) was almost comically simple.
"Strommy, he would like, in spring training, he'll meet a young guy, a pitcher, 'Hey, how are you doing, where are you from?' one member of the Astros recalled. 'Oh good, oh hey, I want to ask you, are you familiar with sticky stuff?'"- Excerpt from "Winning Isn't Everything"
"Another GM echoed the same thing. 'I've had players tell me, their entire pitching model, was based on, get a new pitcher, give 'em the shit. And you know they laugh, it wasn't like, hey, we had a front office, or Brent Strom presentation, where I was misutilizing my [pitches], and change grips and change my pitch mix. No, it was: Brent Strom would come in, my first side [session] there, bring out a can of the shit, rub it on my fingers, and show me how much better it made my stuff. That was it.'"- Excerpt from "Winning Isn't Everything"
Therefore, it stands to reason that the further Verlander gets away from the bucket of "sh-t," the tougher it is to control his pitches all of a sudden.
Justin Verlander struggling with Mets, would've happened with Yankees, too
In his most recent start, Verlander sat 92.3 MPH with his fastball, several ticks down from where he desired it to be, and blamed the gap on mechanical failure. He also walked four and allowed eight hits in five innings, making it 10 walks total in 21 innings this spring.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the Mets placed Verlander on the Injured List after camp broke; he's been diagnosed with a "low grade teres major" strain, and will be reevaluated in a week's time.
If Steve Cohen really wants to go the extra mile, he'll do some research on Strom's current salary (he's now a member of the Diamondbacks coaching staff) and triple it.
This nonsense, in addition to his age, is why Yankees fans were rightfully reticent when last year's offseason plan seemed to involve dropping $25 million on Verlander for a single year. At the horn, Verlander received a heftier one-year offer with an option from Houston and decided to comfortably run it back for one more season. That was ... very good.
As tempting as acquiring the No. 1 villain of the current era of Yankees baseball would've been, the team already watched the somewhat-stumble-filled transition of one Astros ace to the Big Apple/a world without the same level of spin-altering technology. Gerrit Cole has been a certified star since joining the Yankees, but he's never again reached the heights he did in Houston in 2019 when he put up one of the most absurd pitching seasons in modern history (league-leader in ERA+, FIP, ERA and strikeouts, with 326 in 212.1 innings).
Since coming to the Bronx, he also was vilified as the face of sticky stuff due to a few leaked text messages and an uncomfortable press conference where he was tarred and feathered before a start in Minnesota. In reality, Cole's profile was obviously affected by foreign substances. But he shouldn't have been the "face" of the movement. Instead, that face should've been a big, shiny Houston Astros logo.
Perhaps Verlander can shrug off the differences and adapt. Perhaps he can get his hands on the substances he needs. Or maybe he's just another cog in the Houston machine, leaving the Mets to pay the piper and the Yankees to exhale.