Justin Verlander has more hardware for his trophy case. Less than two weeks after winning his second World Series ring, Verlander won his third career Cy Young award Wednesday night, and he won it unanimously. Verlander missed 2021 while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and is the first pitcher ever to win the Cy Young a year after throwing zero innings.

“I think (you) appreciate everything more at the back third or quarter of your career,” Verlander said during MLB Network’s Cy Young broadcast. “Just everything that led up to this. When you’re young and things just go your way, you don’t understand what it takes to make things go your way. All of a sudden, things go in the opposite direction. That happened to me a couple times in my career, and it makes you appreciate things more, because you know how much hard work goes on to get to this point.”

At this point Verlander’s Hall of Fame case is cemented. He could retire tomorrow and still cruise into Cooperstown on the first ballot. Among pitchers who played the entirety of their careers in the 21st century, only Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer compare to Verlander (the late Roy Halladay debuted in 1998).

Zack Greinke

38

223-141

3.42

123

2,882

71.5

1

Clayton Kershaw

34

197-87

2.48

156

2,807

73.1

3

Max Scherzer

37

201-102

3.11

135

3,193

70.7

3

Justin Verlander

39

244-133

3.24

132

3,198

78.1

3

The role of the starting pitcher has changed a lot in a short period of time. Just looking at Verlander’s career, 45 pitchers threw 200 innings in 2006, his rookie season. Only eight — eight! — did it in 2022. The game is much more bullpen-centric now, and Verlander, even at age 39 and coming off Tommy John surgery, is a throwback. He finished 34th in innings pitched this season.

No pitcher has made 40 starts in a season since Charlie Hough in 1987 and he’s an outlier as a rubber-armed knuckleballer. Before Hough, the last pitcher to make 40 starts was Jim Clancy in 1982. Before Clancy it was Phil Niekro (another knuckleballer) in 1979. The last season with multiple 40-start pitchers was 1978, when Niekro, Mike Flanagan and Dennis Leonard all did it.

Five-man rotations began to take hold in the 1970s and 40-start pitchers began to fade away. If we consider 1982, the year after the players’ strike split the 1981 season into two halves, as the first year of the “modern” era of starting pitchers and five-man rotations, there’s a pretty clear heirarchy.

The Best of the Best

Roger Clemens

354-184

3.12

143

4,672

138.7

7

Randy Johnson

303-166

3.29

135

4,875

103.5

5

Greg Maddux

355-227

3.16

132

3,371

104.8

4

Clemens has a complicated legacy because of performance-enhancing drug allegations that, thus far, have kept him out of the Hall of Fame. Looking just at the stats — the factual record of what happened on the field — these three are the titans of our “modern” era of starting pitchers (1982 to present). All three had a claim to the “best pitcher in baseball” title at some point during their career and they all combined extremely high peaks with exceptional longevity. The best of our “modern” era, bar none.

The Next Tier

Tom Glavine

305-203

3.54

118

2,607

73.9

2

Pedro Martinez

219-100

2.93

154

3,154

86.1

3

Mike Mussina

270-153

3.68

123

2,813

82.8

0

Curt Schilling

216-146

3.46

127

3,116

80.5

0

At his peak, Pedro was one of the best per-inning pitchers in baseball history, if not the best. Go look at his 1999 and 2000 seasons if you haven’t in a while. The only reason Martinez is in this tier and not the upper tier is the relative lack of longevity — he is 1,300 innings behind Johnson and more than 2,000 innings behind Clemens and Maddux. The workload is a separator.

Glavine lacks the strikeout dominance of Mussina and Schilling, but geez, spend 22 years in the big leagues as an above-average starter and yeah, you belong in the Hall of Fame. Mussina spent the entirety of his career in hitter-friendly AL East home ballparks and Schilling’s postseason performance is exemplary. These four pitchers are the second tier of our “modern” era.

The next tier includes names like Halladay (65.4), Kevin Brown (68.2 WAR), Mark Buehrle (60.0 WAR), David Cone (61.6 WAR), Andy Pettitte (60.6 WAR), CC Sabathia (61.8 WAR) and John Smoltz (66.4 WAR). This is the tier where you can start poking holes in Hall of Fame cases. After this tier you’re in Orel Hershiser, Chuck Finley and Bret Saberhagen territory.

In our loosely defined era of “modern” starting pitchers, Verlander is already firmly in that second tier alongside Glavine, Martinez, Mussina and Schilling. He’s said he wants to pitch until he’s 45 and picking up the 22 WAR he needs to join the 100 WAR club between now and then will be difficult, though not completely impossible. It’s 3.7 WAR per year from ages 40-45.

We know pitcher wins are not the best way to evaluate individual pitchers but the 300-win plateau remains hallowed territory. You have to pitch very well for a very long time to reach 300 wins. Verlander is sitting on 244 wins and figures to be the last pitcher to approach 300 wins for quite some time. Some potential 300-win candidates:

  • Clayton Kershaw: 197 wins at age 34, though he’s essentially going year-to-year at this point.
  • Gerrit Cole: 130 wins at age 31. Can he stay healthy and pile up wins on good Yankees teams?
  • Aaron Nola: 78 wins at age 29. He is the active leader in wins among 20-somethings. Yes, really.

Like I said, it’ll be a good long while until someone approaches 300 wins after Verlander. He has a shot at 300 wins, a shot at 100 WAR, and also a chance to join Clemens, Johnson, Maddux and Steve Carlton as the only pitchers in history with four or more Cy Young awards. Given how good Verlander was at age 39 in 2022, why can’t he win another Cy Young at some point?

Verlander’s peers in the “modern” era of starting pitchers are Glavine, Martinez, Mussina and Schilling. He’s a notch below Clemens, Johnson and Maddux, and there’s no shame in that. Those three guys are three of the 10-15 best pitchers ever. Verlander could one day join that super elite tier alongside Clemens, Johnson and Maddux. As things stand, he looks poised to settle in as the fourth best pitcher of this “modern” pitching era.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *