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Age? Injury? Nothing Can Stop Justin Verlander.

One recent Saturday afternoon in Seattle, Justin Verlander was protecting a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning when he landed in a jam: runners on second and third, one out. So the Houston Astros’ 39-year-old still-ace turned to his full catalog. Verlander threw sliders at the Mariners’ belt buckles, curveballs over their shoelaces and a general helping of high heat. Sandwiched around a Kyle Lewis walk, he finished Cal Raleigh and Sam Haggerty off with fastballs revved up past their shoulders. The radar gun clocked the putaway pitches at 99 and 97 miles per hour, up from Verlander’s season average of 95. Both batters swung, and neither got close.

“I haven’t been able to let it go like that in a long time,” a grinning Verlander said after the Astros tidied up a 3-1 win. “It feels great. I feel like the younger version of myself.”

Over his extended and decorated prime, Verlander was known for this kind of thing, cranking up the velo as he reached the depths of the late innings — that something in the tank available only to certain select pitchers from baseball history. In this, his 17th major-league year, having missed all but six innings of the previous two after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2020, the best starter of his generation (give or take one Clayton Kershaw) is putting a similar coda on his career. Verlander’s ERA, 1.81, is the second-lowest in baseball;1 everyone else in the top five is at least a decade his junior. His WHIP, 0.87, is also second-best; his WAR slots into the top six no matter if you look at FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference.com. As a Detroit Tiger in 2011 — when baseball’s current ERA leader, Shane McClanahan, was 14 years old — Verlander became just the tenth pitcher in baseball history to win the Cy Young and MVP in the same year. This season, his ERA+, which rates his performance relative to league average, is 42 points better than it was then.

The most remarkable thing about Verlander’s 2022 is its unremarkability. Between starts this year, he has talked the way you might expect a recently operated-on nearly 40-year-old to talk about managing both his body and his expectations, and early in the season, the Astros used a six-man rotation to help ease his transition back. But on the mound, it’s as if he never left. The delivery is still a diagram — knee to sternum, the right arm whooshed straight over the top — and the catalog still overwhelming. Verlander’s fastball, missiled to the upper edge of the zone, produces either weak pop-ups or career reconsiderations. The breaking stuff moves with dotted-line precision, on the plate to off.

The game plan, too, is the same one he’s used since revitalizing his career in Houston following a trade from Detroit in 2017. Under the direction of former Astros pitching coach Brent Strom, Verlander scrapped his two-seam fastball in favor of a high four-seamer mixed with breaking pitches low. The combo worked wonders before his surgery; as the poor M’s up top can attest, it’s remained effective after. 

Some minor measure of spin has fallen off that four-seam fastball, taking him from the 99th percentile leaguewide to the 90th, and more than that off of his breaking pitches. (We’ll pause here to note that Verlander’s year-plus away coincided with MLB’s crackdown on sticky stuff, and that Houston had developed something of a reputation vis-à-vis their baseballs feeling like flypaper.) Still, he’s using his repertoire in the familiar proportions, with the fastball accounting for just over half his offerings and the remainder split about 3-to-2 between the slider and curveball, with the odd changeup mixed in. Whatever the RPM, the results are there. Batters are hitting .186 against the slider, and .162 against the curve.

Since 1969, only nine pitchers aged 39 or older have put up a sub-3.00 ERA over a full season, a list populated by Hall of Famers (Nolan Ryan, Phil Niekro), oddball ageless wonders (Bartolo Colón), or both (Gaylord Perry) — none of whom were coming off of major surgeries on their pitching elbows. If his current form holds, Verlander would join Roger Clemens of the 2005 Astros as the only 39-or-over pitcher who has managed a sub-2.00 ERA.

Verlander leads a select club of ageless pitchers

Best earned run average for qualified* pitchers during their age-39 season or older, 1969-2022

Pitcher Season Age Team Innings ERA
Justin Verlander 2022 39 HOU 124.0 1.81
Roger Clemens 2005 42 HOU 211.3 1.87
Randy Johnson 2004 40 ARI 245.7 2.60
Bartolo Colón 2013 40 OAK 190.3 2.65
Gaylord Perry 1978 39 SDP 260.7 2.73
Nolan Ryan 1987 40 HOU 211.7 2.76
Phil Niekro 1978 39 ATL 334.3 2.88
Nolan Ryan 1991 44 TEX 173.0 2.91
Rick Reuschel 1989 40 SFG 208.3 2.94
Roger Clemens 2004 41 HOU 214.3 2.98

*To qualify for the ERA title, a pitcher must throw at least one inning per scheduled team game.

Through July 30, 2022.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

And over the last month, Verlander has stripped all the qualifications from his performance, leveling up from “great for an old guy fresh off Tommy John” to just plain great. In his most recent six starts, he has allowed just four earned runs across 41⅔ innings. On June 24 against the Yankees (a start in which he went 7 innings and allowed 1 run), Verlander retired Aaron Judge all three times he faced him, the first time on a low slider that Judge hit off the end of the bat to right-center, the last by way of that now-signature one-two punch — curveball low, heater high — which got Judge to pop out to foul territory.

His next outing, against New York’s other World Series contender, was even better. Verlander went eight scoreless innings against the Mets, striking out six, but the telling moment came back in the first, when Jeff McNeil grinded out a nine-pitch at-bat. After McNeil swatted away a few fastballs, Verlander cycled to the changeup, one of just three he’d throw all day. He started it on the outside corner and let it roll off; McNeil flailed. The selection was an anomaly — Verlander has thrown only 40 changeups all year, against which opposing batters have hit .100 — but the M.O. was the same as ever. Speed them up, slow them down, put the pitch they’re not ready for in the spot where they can’t touch it.

If it all seems so simple, that’s at least in part because Verlander sees his recovery in simple terms. “The last season I was healthy, I won the Cy Young,” Verlander said in May of last year, from the depths of his Tommy John rehab. “I definitely think I can get back to the pitcher that I was [in 2019], at the least.” The logic makes sense, from a certain vantage point. Why shouldn’t a year-plus of rehab give the same boost to an elder statesman that it does to young aces? Why couldn’t his time off be restorative, instead of a death knell?

The only real reason to doubt Verlander’s comeback was, admittedly, a pretty good one: something like it had never been done before. But now, the next time a case like his comes up, in a generation or five, we’ll all be able to point to Verlander as the proof of concept.


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Footnotes

  1. Through games of July 30.

Robert O’Connell is a writer from Kansas. His work can be found on The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian and elsewhere.

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