‘Old' pitchers are a dominant force in 2019

August 14th, 2019

One of the most exciting aspects of baseball is the explosion of young, endlessly exciting hitters who have taken over the game over the last few years. Cody Bellinger, Alex Bregman, Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, Matt Chapman, Pete Alonso, Carlos Correa … there is so much otherworldly talent under the age of 25 that it’s virtually impossible to list all the great young players without feeling guilty about leaving someone out.

Of the top 10 position players in WAR in baseball right now (per Baseball Reference), only one -- Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu -- is over the age of 30. Only two of the top 20 are over 30. (Michael Brantley is No. 20.)

But when you look at the pitching leaderboard, you discover something fascinating: If this is the era of the young phenom hitter, it’s even more the era of the old, wily veteran pitcher.

You know how only one of the top 10 hitters was over 30, and two of the top 20? It’s the opposite involving pitchers. Of the top 10 pitchers in ERA this season, a stunning seven are over the age of 30. If you go down to the top 12, there are nine. What’s fascinating about these nine pitchers is that few of them have had any sort of natural career arc: They didn’t struggle early, hit their peak in their late 20s and then slowly devolve and erode as they grew older. (You know, like the rest of us.) Many of them, most of them, have become their best selves in what is supposed to be the back half of their careers. (If only that were like the rest of us.)

Here’s a closer look at those nine pitchers, not just this year, but their whole career, to see how they got to this point. Hitters might benefit from youth. But pitching is all about the experience of those gray hairs.

1. Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP, LAD (1.45 ERA, age 32)
The season Ryu is having feels like it should defy explanation, but it’s worth noting that since returning from missing 2015 after labrum surgery, he has been better every single season. He made one (poor) appearance in 2016, then made 25 appearances (24 starts) with a 3.77 ERA in 2017. His big step forward was last year, when he had a 1.97 ERA, a sterling figure that only looks bloated when compared in 2019. This year, of course, he’s 12-2 with a cartoonish 1.45 ERA that would represent the lowest mark by a qualifier since MLB lowered the mound in 1969. He also has a downright absurd walk rate. (He’s averaging just over one walk per nine innings.)

Another key this year: Staying healthy. He has already made seven more starts than he did last season and is on pace to soar past his career innings high. Like many pitchers on this list, he has recovered from a serious surgery and become something better than he ever was before.

2. Mike Soroka, RHP, ATL (2.32 ERA, age 22)
Under-30 alert!

3. Max Scherzer, RHP, WSH (2.41 ERA, age 35)
If it weren’t for Ryu (and a current injury), Scherzer would be well on his way to his fourth Cy Young. Scherzer has been unfailingly consistent for nearly a decade now, making seven consecutive All-Star Games. He has had an ERA over 3 only once during that stretch, and, unlike most pitchers on this list, has never had a major injury. In fact, this will end up being the first season he has had fewer than 30 starts since his rookie year in 2008. Scherzer is one of the two pitchers on this list who has never had a down period: He pitched brilliantly in his 20s, and now he pitches brilliantly in his 30s.

4. Jacob deGrom, RHP, NYM (2.68 ERA, age 31)
It doesn’t seem like deGrom is this old, does it? That’s because deGrom didn’t reach the Majors until just before his 26th birthday; he never even made more than 20 starts in a season in the Minors until he was 25. He has certainly caught up since then, peaking at age 30 with his incredible 2018 season with a 1.70 ERA and a historically low home run rate. That has crept up a little this year, but only barely, and he has been dominant in July and August, not coincidentally when the Mets have made their run. This is still somehow only deGrom’s sixth season in the Majors.

5. Luis Castillo, RHP, CIN (2.69 ERA, age 26)
Under-30 alert!

6. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, LAD (2.77 ERA, age 31)
The general consensus, particularly after last year’s postseason, was that Kershaw had lost a little something, that he was going to have to make some adjustments as he transitioned into his 30s. The adjustments appear to be going well: He’s not 2013-17 Best Pitcher On The Planet Kershaw, but one suspects he and the Dodgers are OK with him simply being part of the top five. Statistically, he’s almost having the exact same season he had in 2018. The best part about Kershaw: He is in fact the second-youngest person on this list. (deGrom is the youngest, by 92 days.)

7. Justin Verlander, RHP, HOU (2.82 ERA, age 36)
No one thought Verlander was done at the end of his tenure with the Tigers, but you can certainly understand why most of us assumed his time as a top-tier ace was over. He’d been hit with injuries in 2014 and 2015 and not quite been the same since; when the Tigers traded him to the Astros in 2017, there was a legitimate worry that the Astros were making a mistake taking on his contract. It did not turn out to be a mistake: He is better now than he has ever been, deep into his 30s. His strikeout rate is higher than it has ever been; his walk rate is lower than it has ever been. We thought Verlander might rediscover some of his old magic. No one thought he’d surpass it. It might just have gotten him into Cooperstown. And, of course, he’s not done yet.

8. Gerrit Cole, RHP, HOU (2.87 ERA, age 26)
Under-30 alert!

9. Mike Minor, LHP, TEX (2.90 ERA, age 31)
Minor had battled injuries his entire career before he missed two full seasons, 2015 and 2016, with shoulder surgery. He came back in 2017 as a reliever for the Royals, and it worked splendidly, adding 5 mph to his fastball and giving him the best stats of his career. There was still reason for concern when he decided to return to starting with Texas last year, but there isn’t a team in baseball that wouldn’t take 28 starts of a 4.18 ERA. And this year, he has put it all together, with a 2.90 ERA in a park where such a number is increasingly difficult to reach.

10. Charlie Morton, RHP, TB (2.90 ERA, age 35)
You kids will never believe this, but there really was a time that Charlie Morton was considered a soft-tossing, back-of-the-rotation rotation space filler. No longer. Like several pitchers on this list -- perhaps not a coincidence -- Morton discovered his mojo with Houston, and he was brilliant in both 2017 and 2018, even getting to finish off a World Series at one point. Moving to Tampa Bay has worked out just as well, and now he’s as reliable a starter as there is in the sport. But trust us: There’s no way you would have believed this possible in 2010.

11. Wade Miley, LHP, HOU (2.99 ERA, age 32)
Yep, Houston again. It wasn’t long ago Miley was the mildly disappointing D-backs prospect, one who bounced around from Boston to Seattle to Baltimore before finally figuring it out in Milwaukee in 2018, albeit for only 16 starts. The Astros, as always, have unlocked both effectiveness and health. He still doesn’t strike many batters out; he never has. But he’s getting the job done better than he ever has.

12. Zack Greinke, RHP, HOU (3.08 ERA, age 35)
That’s right: Five members of the Astros’ rotation are in the top 12 of ERA. Greinke was of course the crown jewel at the Trade Deadline, and he’s the perfect fit for an Astros team that looks like it might be the best in baseball. And all the other Astros on this list have improved when they came to town: How do you make Greinke better?

So have faith, young pitchers: Someday you’ll mature enough to maybe make this list. Especially if you end up in Houston.