The extraordinary Justin Verlander is 39 … and the best pitcher in baseball

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Michael Wyke/AP</span>
Photograph: Michael Wyke/AP

When Justin Verlander got José Ramírez to line out to end the sixth inning in last week’s game between the Houston Astros and the Cleveland Guardians, the righty veteran walked off the field having thrown six shutout innings. Barely breaking stride, or a smile, it was yet another stellar outing on the mound.

Thursday’s victory wasn’t just another game, though. It gave Verlander his 15th win of the season and lowered his ERA to 1.73, both the best in the majors. For a 39-year-old who appeared in just one game in the previous two seasons – due to an arm injury and then Tommy John surgery to repair the damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow – it was another reminder of just how special a pitcher Verlander is, and how historic a season he’s putting together.

As the ace of a pitching staff that leads the AL in several major categories, including ERA, WHIP and opponents’ batting average, Verlander is a big reason why the Astros are battling with the New York Yankees for the AL’s best record. As a mark of just how dominant he’s been, Verlander is odds on favorite to win his third American League Cy Young award, and is also the runaway leader according to ESPN’s Cy Young Predictor.

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Having won the award in 2011 and 2019, Verlander could join a list of only 10 others to win at least three Cy Young Awards in MLB history. And at 39, he would become part of an even smaller list to win the award at such a late age.

What’s even more remarkable is the youth of the three pitchers closest to taking the award away from him this year, if you can even call them close. Chicago White Sox’s Dylan Cease, 26, Toronto’s Alek Manoah, 24, and Tampa’s Shane McClanahan, 25, have fewer than 175 starts between them, compared with Verlander’s mammoth 473 over 17 seasons. When Verlander won his first Cy Young in 2011, and his first MVP in the same season, Cease, Manoah and McClanahan were still in high school.

Regardless of awards and his competition, Verlander may actually be getting better. If the 2022 season ended today, he would have career bests in ERA and win-loss percentage, tied-best walks per nine innings, and his second-best WHIP and opponents’ batting average, among his seasons where he pitched more than 35 innings. And if Verlander continues at this pace for a projected 10 remaining regular-season starts, he’ll eclipse 20 wins for just the third time in his career. The other two times coming in his two Cy Young seasons to date.

How is Verlander still logging sparkling numbers despite throwing more than 3,000 innings in his career? While he’s been known for his punch out power – Verlander has averaged more than a strikeout per inning in his career to date – it’s his control and ability to induce weak contact from hitters that has been most effective. Verlander’s 1.6 walks per nine innings is fourth best in the majors, and he has used his fastball half the time – down from around 60% in recent years – to allow his slider and curveball to force his opponents to generate power themselves.

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As good as Verlander was until injuries threatened to end his career short – he went 16-9 with a 2.52 ERA in 2018, and 21-6 and an ERA of 2.58 in 2019 – the Astros were understandably cautious to commit too much of their payroll to him, after paying the veteran $66m over the past two seasons to essentially rehab from injury.

But after Thursday’s gem took Verlander to 130 innings pitched, a player option for next season was triggered, meaning the Astros will have their ace back in 2023 for a bargain price, by MLB standards, of $25m.

Barring a major injury, we may well be back here in a year’s time marveling over even more of Verlander’s historic feats as a 40-year-old. Until then, the Virginia native has completely destroyed his fellow 39-year-old compatriots. Of the 75 pitchers in MLB-history to have pitched at least 130 innings in their age-39 season, Verlander is in another league of his own.

No other pitcher has an ERA under two at the same age, albeit Verlander has so far pitched less than half the 268.1 innings Eddie Plank notched in 1915, who is closest with a 2.08 ERA. In the 21st century, an era when pitch and innings counts are more strictly implemented and adhered to, fellow future Hall-of-Famer Adam Wainwright of the St Louis Cardinals is closest, who put up a 3.05 ERA in 206.1 innings last season, a spectacular campaign in its own right. If not for Verlander’s astonishing numbers, it might well be Wainwright, who’s again having a great season at 40, that the baseball community would have been fawning over.

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If Verlander does indeed win his third Cy Young award, his 240 career wins and counting, his MVP season in 2011 (that also included a triple crown), and his World Series ring in 2017, mean he will certainly rank among the best pitchers ever to grace a baseball field. But until he hangs up his cleats, and it may be a few more years until he does, the baseball world will have to invent new superlatives to describe just how extraordinary Justin Verlander is.