Justin Verlander is having a Cy Young-caliber year, and it just might be the best season any pitcher aged 39 or over has ever had.
Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander had another dominant outing on Thursday night, pitching 6 scoreless innings as the Astros cruised to a 6-0 victory to open up their series in Cleveland. This performance dropped his ERA to an astounding 1.73 and gave him a well-deserved 15th winning decision of the year.
Verlander’s road back to the majors has been well-documented in Houston. After winning the Cy Young Award in 2019, he pitched a single game in 2020 before undergoing Tommy John surgery, keeping him sidelined until 2022. He underwent the procedure at age 37, so it was reasonable to question whether he’d ever pitch again at the time.
Not only has he worked his way back to the big leagues to begin with, but he’s now the frontrunner for the Cy Young Award in 2022, which would be his fourth time receiving the honor. Tampa Bay’s Shane McClanahan was the favorite for most of the first half, but a few uncharacteristic starts after the all-star game have knocked him down many of the statistical leaderboards.
Verlander’s previously mentioned 1.73 ERA now leads the AL. Fangraphs has him 2nd in the league in wins above replacement behind Toronto’s Kevin Gausman, but he leads all AL pitchers according to BaseballReference’s model. He returned from a medical procedure that, at his age, normally spells the end of a pitcher’s career, but he’s still one of the best in baseball.
The narrative regarding the magnitude of Verlander’s success in 2022 has become fairly mainstream at this point, but many are still not grasping just how remarkable his year has been. Specifically, it’s quite reasonable to argue that since integration, no pitcher has ever been this great in a single season. That assertion automatically implies that Verlander is having a once-in-a-generation campaign, one of historic proportions, but it’s a statement that can be backed up.
Even with the advent of era and park-adjusted statistics, it’s difficult to compare pitchers across different generations at this stage because their fundamental role has transformed. Gone are the days when a starting pitcher will take the hill and throw 150 pitches per start, 300 innings in a season, and pitch deep into games on 2 days’ rest in the postseason. The combination of medical and analytical research has made the true “workhorse” starter nearly extinct, although it’s making somewhat of a comeback with Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara, who is on pace to be the first starter to average over 7 innings per start in years.
Nevertheless, the generational change in the role of the starting pitcher is what makes Verlander’s season so unique, because lately there have been such a small percentage of players who have even been given the chance to return to the mound at all when they reach 39 years old. Still, the gold standard in terms of a single season for a pitcher aged 39 or greater is often considered to be Randy Johnson’s 2004.
No one can claim to have the longevity that “The Big Unit” did, especially considering that his breakout season didn’t happen until age 29, his career-best season occurred at 37, and he didn’t retire until 45. In that 2004 campaign with the Diamondbacks, Johnson started 35 games, threw 245 innings, and had an ERA of 2.60. He was also worth 9.6 fWAR, which leads all pitchers aged 39 or over in a single season since integration. Johnson did all this at the age of 40.
The caveat with comparing Verlander to that is he won’t come close to 245 innings or 35 starts this year. Not only has that become a non-existent practice due to modern baseball principles, but the Astros have been working with a 6-man rotation for most of the year and they also have the best bullpen in the majors by ERA. Randy Johnson’s 2004 isn’t even the most extreme example of a pitcher having an intense workload despite pushing 40.
The 2nd-highest fWAR a pitcher has posted in a single season when aged 39 or above is 8.6, which belongs to the late Phil Niekro. Niekro started 42 games and pitched 334 innings for the Braves in 1978. 334 innings! Nowadays, it often takes a team’s top three starters to match that total. Still, he managed a 2.88 ERA and only allowed 16 home runs over that lengthy sample.
Verlander has started 20 games for the Astros up to this point in the season. Even if he starts every 5 games for the rest of the year, he’ll finish the year with 31 starts. Extrapolating his current fWAR of 3.8 over a 31-start pace, Verlander is on track to finish the year at 5.9, which would tie him for 5th in a single season with Gaylord Perry in 1978 among all starters aged 39 or over since integration. Ahead of them are Johnson, Niekro, 1989 Nolan Ryan, and 1987 Nolan Ryan. Verlander’s FIP is currently 2.98, which ranks 11th of the 129 seasons in the same group.
The single most important piece of the argument that Verlander is making history is his 1.73 ERA. Guess who, of all the players who are at least his age, has had an ERA that low in a season? No one. If the season ended today, Verlander would set a post-integration MLB record in this peer group for ERA. The current record holder is Roger Clemens, who had a 1.87 mark in 2005, a year where he ironically happened to pitch for the Astros. If Verlander can keep his ERA under 1.87 the rest of the year, he will accomplish something that no pitcher his age ever has. In terms of ERA- (a park-and-era-adjusted version of ERA, similar to wRC+ but lower is better), Verlander is sitting at 46. Only 2005 Clemens beats that out at 44, as run-scoring was slightly higher in 2005.
The rarity of such a feat in this generation cannot be overstated. Only 2 other pitchers appear in the top 50 single-season ERA leaderboard since 2010: Adam Wainwright in 2021 and 2022, and Bartolo Colon in 2013 and 2016. My message to baseball fans in general would be to pay attention and enjoy the show whenever Justin Verlander is on the mound. Not only is he one of the best pitchers in baseball after the adversity he has had to overcome the past couple of seasons, but he’s on track to accomplish a feat that has never been done before by a pitcher of his age, and may never be seen again. On top of that, he certainly has the very realistic goal of taking his talents all the way back to the World Series this fall.