A Cy Young campaign at 39 years old? Justin Verlander has always saved his most incredible feats for last

·6-min read

Justin Verlander has always been a starting pitcher, a workhorse. But in another arena, one where the stars are literal horses, he might have been known as a closer. From his earliest days in the big leagues, Verlander has exhibited a rare ability to pace himself through a start, and even throttle up his fastball as the game goes on.

When he fired his first no-hitter for the Detroit Tigers in 2007, he hit 101 mph on the radar gun in the ninth inning. When he notched another no-no in 2011, he touched 100 with his 106th pitch. And when he threw no-no No. 3 during his Cy Young-winning 2019, Verlander hurled his five fastest pitches of the night to the very last batter.

Since we started tracking and logging every pitch, in 2008, Verlander has thrown 46 heaters over 100 mph in the eighth or ninth innings. All other starting pitchers combined have managed 38.

This is his trademark — the finishing kick, closing speed.

So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that he has returned from Tommy John surgery, at age 39, with another thunderous charge to the front of the pack. But there’s no way to avoid the shock, it’s a primal reflex. Winning the AL Cy Young at 36 was the mark of a Hall of Fame-bound pitcher who found a second wind with the Houston Astros, sure. Missing two whole seasons at this age — he went down in his first start of 2020 — and picking up where he left off? Maybe improving upon it? That’s borderline unbelievable.

Through 21 starts this year, Verlander leads baseball with a 1.85 ERA and 15 wins. He has firmly entrenched himself as the favorite for a third Cy Young, and he’s jockeying to claim the belt for best season by a pitcher over 38. Right now, his ERA+ — which compares pitchers to park- and era-adjusted league averages — would be the second-best since integration, behind only Roger Clemens’ ridiculous 2005 season at age 42. We will say, perhaps charitably, that there are some questions about how Clemens achieved his longevity.

Really, Verlander’s greatest competition might come from a contemporary — newly 38-year-old Max Scherzer — who has a 1.98 ERA, but missed some starts this year with an oblique injury.

Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander is vying for a third Cy Young Award at age 39, in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)
Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander is vying for a third Cy Young Award at age 39, in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

A throwback who stays current

There’s an understandable tendency to label Verlander a throwback, an ace from the days of yore — when everyone went nine innings, milk only came from cows and elementary school students were bizarrely required to walk up snow-covered hills before and after each school day. It’s true that Verlander is the last MLB pitcher to cross the 250-inning threshold in a season (2011). It’s also true he’s the last to even go 220 innings in a season (2019). But he’s not dominating 2022 hitters with some sort of sepia-toned superpower.

Verlander’s latest, perhaps greatest, chapter is inexorably up with the times. His 2017 trade to the Astros gave him access to famed pitching coach Brent Strom and a wellspring of analytically guided advice. For Verlander — and shortly thereafter, Gerrit Cole — that meant ditching his two-seam fastball to focus on a high, rising four-seam fastball and complimentary breaking balls he snaps off of it and lands lower in the zone.

To break down Verlander’s dominance is to confront the reality that he’s a fun hypothetical in corporeal form: What if you could take the legendary pitchers of past generations and give them access to today’s numbers and technology?

He has used detailed video breakdowns to fine tune his delivery. He was a major beneficiary of Statcast’s revelations about spin rate. He has tracked along with a rising leaguewide emphasis on sliders.

And as much as it may appear that he clicked Save As on his 2019 form, then imported it back into his new elbow this spring, the 2022 success has required adaptation. For one, it has meant taking it easier on his surgically repaired elbow than he might naturally want to.

It has also meant adjusting to changes in his arsenal. His famed four-seamer isn’t spinning quite as fast as it did in 2019 (before the sticky stuff crackdown, for what it’s worth) and isn’t getting the same percentage of whiffs. No problem: Verlander has moved to mix things up, even if it’s subtle. He’s starting a career-low 57.5% of at-bats with the heater, and instead giving hitters heavier doses of his slider and curveball. The underlying numbers say some of his eye-popping top-line statistics could return to earth — Statcast gives him an expected ERA of 2.94 based on the quality of contact hitters are making — but there always seems to be intention behind Verlander’s game.

And there may be some real strategy keeping Verlander ahead of the curve.

With a less lively baseball in play this year, Verlander — speaking to ESPN in June — conspicuously noted that this spring’s balls were tamping down opposite-field homers for all but the most powerful sluggers. He was lamenting that the balls seemed to be loosening up with the weather, but that observation is telling.

MLB hitters as a whole are slugging .531 on balls hit in the air to the middle or opposite fields in 2022, the worst results since 2014. Slugging on balls pulled in the air is also down, but to 1.202. Everything about this year’s offensive environment incentivizes pulling the ball. Which makes it notable that Verlander is allowing a lower pull rate than ever before, lower than anyone in baseball.

How long will Justin Verlander maintain elite performance?

Having already defied the odds in returning from Tommy John surgery in his late 30s, Verlander can now turn his attention to more general achievements in longevity. He has publicly stated an interest in joining the 300 win club — which hasn’t welcomed a new member since Randy Johnson in 2009. Verlander, currently at 241, would need to pitch well, for a winner, into his 40s to make it happen.

That’s looking more plausible every day. Last week, he logged his 130th inning of 2022, opening a $25 million player option to stay with the Astros in 2023. His Houston teammates have long seen hints of another ageless superstar in the 6-foot-5 hurler.

“That’s Verlander: the Tom Brady of baseball,” Alex Bregman told the New York Times in 2019.

Back before the surgery and his current comeback, Verlander was already focused on health habits he thought could help him and his teammates play their best, like sleeping 10 hours a night. Maybe all of that will add up to two extra years of greatness, maybe it will add up to five.

Justin Verlander's fastball velocity has taken a jump to pre-2019 levels after an adjustment in July. (Chart via FanGraphs)
Justin Verlander's fastball velocity has taken a jump to pre-2019 levels after an adjustment in July. (Chart via FanGraphs)

I can’t help thinking of his preternatural, inexplicable ability to reserve his best stuff for crunch time. Can’t help but notice that he found a velocity bump over the past month or so, and has recently been throwing harder than he did in 2019.

If anyone can accelerate to the finish line, it’s Verlander. He just may be the only one who knows where the finish line is, and how much excellence he has saved up in the tank.