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Vintage Verlander stacks up to ageless wonders

Astros' 35-year-old righty in good company with jaw-dropping stats
June 16, 2018

There's a scene in the eloquently named film "Knocked Up" in which the nightclub doorman, played by Craig Robinson, denies entry to the character played by Leslie Mann, telling her she's too old. But then he quickly clarifies and softens this obviously insulting observation."I mean, for this club," he says.

There's a scene in the eloquently named film "Knocked Up" in which the nightclub doorman, played by Craig Robinson, denies entry to the character played by Leslie Mann, telling her she's too old. But then he quickly clarifies and softens this obviously insulting observation.
"I mean, for this club," he says. "Not, like, for the earth."
That's pretty much what we could say to Justin Verlander right now. His age -- 35 -- is not old "for the earth." But it's definitely too old to be doing what he's doing, i.e., at or near the top of the Majors in seemingly every category that counts.
One of those categories is ERA. After another quality start against the A's this week, Verlander sits at an American League-best 1.61. Just a few years ago, Verlander was questioning whether his big league career was effectively over, but now he's enjoying the kind of late-career clout that very few people enjoy in a profession that takes such a toll on the elbow, shoulder and back.
Since the mound was lowered and MLB went to division play in 1969, there have only been 10 times when a pitcher aged 35 or over has led his league in ERA. So that's a pretty small club (albeit one without a doorman) that Verlander is on track to join. Let's take a look at those 10 seasons, in chronological order.
Rudy May, 35, 1980 Yankees, 2.46 ERA; Don Sutton, 35, 1980 Dodgers, 2.20 ERA
Yes, 1980 was a good year for the creators of the Post-it Note, Pac-Man and the Rubik's Cube, but it was a good year for 35-year-old pitchers, too.
May had had a long and ultimately league-average career that had included a mid-'70s stint with the Yankees by the time he rejoined the club as a free agent prior to 1980. He signed a three-year deal worth a cool $1 million, and he delivered probably the finest of his 16 seasons in the bigs. Bouncing between the rotation (17 starts) and bullpen (24 appearances), his ERA+ (160) and WHIP (1.04) were AL bests, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.41) led the Majors.
Over in the National League, Sutton enjoyed a resurgence after subpar seasons in 1978 and '79. In addition to his ERA, his 0.99 WHIP was a Major League-best. This was the Hall of Famer's 15th season with the Dodgers and would be his last until a return in 1988, when he capped his brilliant career with his original club.
Nolan Ryan, 40, 1987 Astros, 2.76 ERA
Ryan is the exception to many rules. He threw two no-hitters, was twice a top-five finisher in the Cy Young Award voting and led his league in strikeouts four times (and led the Majors twice) after turning 40. From the age of 35 onward, he compiled 135 of his 324 career wins and pitched to a 3.31 ERA in 2,312 innings.
No wonder Verlander has cited him as an inspiration in his desire to pitch until he's 45.
In this '87 season, Ryan not only led the NL in ERA but led the Majors in strikeouts (270), hits per nine (6.5) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.10). Weirdly, though, he went 8-16. The Astros were shut out three times on days he started. Eight other times, they scored just one run. His bullpen also blew five leads he left behind. (Ask the Mets' Jacob deGrom if any of this sounds familiar.)
Dennis Martinez, 37, 1991 Expos, 2.39 ERA
Video: MON@LAD: Dennis Martinez completes a perfect game
El Presidente would go on to do some pretty standout stuff north of 40, too, including starting two World Series games at age 41 in '95. But this was the best of his 23 seasons, as it included not just his Major League-leading ERA, but also his July 28 perfect game against the Dodgers. The Nicaragua native was the first pitcher born outside the U.S. to toss a perfecto.
Martinez had an alcohol problem earlier in his career, and kicking that habit gave him the mental clarity to achieve artistry on the mound in his later years.
Roger Clemens, 35, 1998 Blue Jays, 2.65 ERA
Then-Red Sox GM Dan Duquette famously said Clemens was in the "twilight of his career" when he let him walk from Boston after the 1996 season, and though Clemens would prove him wrong with two dynamic years in Toronto (he led the AL in ERA both at age 34 and 35), as well as many successful seasons beyond that, we all know about the cloud of PED suspicion that hangs over Clemens' late-career resurgence (Brian McNamee was hired as Toronto's strength and conditioning coach before the '98 season).
Anyway, in '98, The Rocket was great. And after the season, the Blue Jays, who were simply not in a contention cycle, honored his request for a trade by sending him to the Bronx.
Randy Johnson, 35, 1999 D-backs, 2.48 ERA

After putting the Astros on his back with a 10-1 record and a 1.28 ERA down the stretch of the '98 season after one of the bigger Trade Deadline blockbusters in history, Johnson signed with Arizona in the offseason and soon proved he had plenty left in the tank.
In the first year of his four-year, $52 million contract, The Big Unit won the first of four consecutive NL Cy Young Awards. He struck out a then-career-high 364 batters in 271 2/3 innings and tossed 12 complete games, and the D-backs won 100 games in just their second year of existence.
Kevin Brown, 35, 2000 Dodgers, 2.58 ERA
Speaking of big free-agent deals, Brown's was as big as they came at the time he signed with the Dodgers prior to the '99 season. His seven-year, $105 million contract was baseball's first nine-figure pact, a clear risk on the part of L.A., given his age. In time, the pitfalls of the deal would reveal themselves, but Brown was really good in '99 and 2000, combining for a 2.80 ERA, 154 ERA+ and 482 1/3 innings. He finished sixth in the Cy Young voting both years.
Alas, beginning in 2001, injuries set in, and the Brown contract quickly became an albatross. He'd eventually find his name in the Mitchell Report.
Johnson, 37, 2001, D-backs, 2.49 ERA; Johnson, 38, 2002 D-backs, 2.32 ERA

Johnson's 2000 season didn't make this list because he had the gall to finish .06 behind Brown on the ERA leaderboard. But do take note that in five of his six years in Arizona -- at the ages of 35, 36, 37, 38 and 40 -- Johnson led the NL in ERA+, the stat adjusted for league and ballpark context. Johnson set his personal strikeout record of 372 in '01 (he was also co-MVP of the World Series, if you're into that sort of thing), and his personal ERA record in '02. In that '02 season, he won the pitching Triple Crown, leading the league in ERA, wins (24) and strikeouts (334).

Clemens, 42, 2005 Astros, 1.87 ERA
The final season on our list doubles as Clemens' last full season. He went just 13-8, but didn't get much run support, in general. The won-loss record is what cost Clemens from adding to his record count of seven Cy Young Awards, as he finished third in the voting behind 20-game winners Dontrelle Willis and Chris Carpenter, both of whom had an ERA almost a full run higher. Clemens helped pitch the 'Stros to a Wild Card spot, and then the World Series.
So while what Verlander is doing at an advanced age is great, to Houstonians accustomed to the Clemens and Ryan examples, he's just a pup.
Honorable mention
Though they didn't lead their leagues in ERA, two other old guys (again, for the game, not the earth) not listed here led the league in ERA+ in the era we're discussing -- a 35-year-old Gaylord Perry (144) with the 1974 Indians and a 35-year-old Steve Carlton (162) with the 1980 Phillies.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.