Ageless Wonder Justin Verlander Is Somehow Better Than Ever at 36

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterMay 24, 2019

HOUSTON, TEXAS - MAY 21: Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros pitches in the first inning against the Chicago White Sox at Minute Maid Park on May 21, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Justin Verlander isn't like other pitchers. He never was.

Not when he was throwing 99 mph in the ninth inning as a rookie. Not when he was routinely topping 120 pitches in a game while others were stopped as soon as they got to 100. And certainly not now, when he's three months past his 36th birthday and still flirting with no-hitters.

He ended up going eight innings Tuesday night for the Houston Astros, allowing just one hit (in the seventh inning) and striking out 12 in a victory over the Chicago White Sox. It was the third time in his career he has pitched at least eight innings and allowed no more than one hit while striking out 12 or more.

The only three pitchers in baseball history who have done it more often? Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax.

So yeah, Verlander isn't like most other pitchers. He's more like Ryan, who pitched until he was 46 and threw his last two no-hitters when he was 43 and 44 years old. Or like Johnson, who pitched until he was 46 and threw his second no-hitter when he was 40.

Ryan was in the Astros' television booth for an inning while Verlander was dominating the White Sox. He called Verlander a "throwback-type pitcher," and he didn't discount the possibility Verlander would also pitch into his mid-40s.

"I've kind of had this round number of 45 in my head," Verlander told Jack Morris in an interview on Fox Sports Detroit a few weeks back.

Verlander has long admired Nolan Ryan, who was 46 when he made his final major league start.
Verlander has long admired Nolan Ryan, who was 46 when he made his final major league start.Rich Pilling/Getty Images

I know I won't be surprised if he gets there. I was covering the Detroit Tigers when Verlander debuted in 2005, and when he threw his first no-hitter two years later against the Milwaukee Brewers. I never saw a pitcher more driven or determined.

Verlander's starts were a can't-miss event then. Twelve years later, they still are.

His ERA through 11 games this season is 2.24. If he kept that up all year, it would be the second-lowest in the last 50 years by a pitcher 36 or older (Roger Clemens had a 1.87 ERA at age 42 in 2005).

His strikeouts per nine innings stand at 11.1. Johnson and Ryan are the only qualified starters who have topped that after their 36th birthdays.

Then there's the number 0.733, which is Verlander's walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP). No 36-year-old in baseball history can match that. The guy who came closest had a 0.867 WHIP in 1905.

That would by Cy Young.

Verlander was just 24 when he threw his first no-hitter in 2007.
Verlander was just 24 when he threw his first no-hitter in 2007.Calvin Doctor/Getty Images

So not only could Verlander win the Cy Young Award, something he did in 2011 when he was also the American League's Most Valuable Player, but he could also actually top Cy Young himself.

It's true that Verlander's numbers through 11 starts last season were even better (1.08 ERA, 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings, 0.710 WHIP). His strikeout rate went up over the final two-thirds of the season (12.7), but the ERA (3.29) and WHIP (1.005) also rose from then on.

But what's also true is that Verlander's last two-plus seasons have served as more proof he can do things other pitchers can't.

His stuff is as good as it ever was. His knowledge of pitching is better than it ever was. His ability to use the data the Astros' analysts provide is far better than it ever was.

Remember when everyone was worried about how many pitches he has thrown in his career (more than 46,000, which is nearly 4,000 more than any other pitcher in that time)? Remember when he needed to reinvent himself because he couldn't throw as hard? Remember when the $28 million he was going to be paid this season would make his contract impossible to trade?

Now here we are, and Verlander can still throw as many pitches as anyone. And one of those pitches in the eighth inning Tuesday night was clocked at 97.8 mph. And the Astros gave him a contract extension that will pay him even more money ($33 million) each of the next two seasons.

Verlander isn't like other pitchers. Most of them are winding down by the time they get to 36. He's going strong.

He didn't end up getting the no-hitter Tuesday. Jose Abreu hit a home run with one out in the seventh inning.

But given the way Verlander is pitching now—the way he's still pitching—there's no reason to think that will be his last chance.

When he threw his second career no-hitter for the Tigers during a 2011 game in Toronto, I didn't think it would be his last. Eight years later, I still don't think it will be his last.

Verlander isn't like other pitchers. He never was.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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Unless otherwise indicated, stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.