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Is the Old Justin Verlander Really Back?

At age 39, Verlander has made his triumphant return to the mound.

Maybe “old” is the wrong word to use here.

At the end of his last full season, Justin Verlander was 36 years old. In February, he turned 39.

He is one of just three starters 39 or older to pitch in the majors this season, along with 40-year-old Adam Wainwright and 42-year-old Rich Hill. 39-year-old J.A. Happ is still hoping to pitch, but he remains unsigned.

Zack Greinke and Charlie Morton are the only active starters in their age-38 seasons, while Max Scherzer is the only one in his age-37 season. Long story short, it’s exceedingly rare these days for a starter to pitch into his late thirties.

All Active Starters Over 35 in 2022

The last time we saw Justin Verlander, he was, perhaps, the best pitcher in baseball. But that was two and a half years and one Tommy John surgery ago. All eyes will be on Verlander this season to see if he can still be the Cy Young-caliber player he was before his elbow injury.

 

Off to a Good Start

 

Justin Verlander’s 2022 Debut

Although he came away as the losing pitcher, Justin Verlander pitched well in his 2022 debut.

He went 5 innings, throwing 80 pitches. He allowed just one run, on a solo homer to Jared Walsh in the bottom of the second. He struck out reigning AL MVP Shohei Ohtani 3 times.

5 innings of one-run ball is good. 7 strikeouts in 5 innings is really good. Striking out the most exciting player in baseball three times is just nasty.

The fact that he only went 5 innings is no cause for concern. Many starting pitchers will be held to low pitch counts in their first few appearances, because they didn’t have enough time to fully warm up their arms in the lockout-shortened Spring Training.

Verlander averaged 16 pitches per inning, which is what we’ve come to expect from him. His career average is 16.3.

 

A Walk (or 3) to Remember

 

The most concerning number in Verlander’s box score line is the 3 walks he allowed. Simply put, walking 3 batters in 5 innings is not very Verlander.

A Selection of Justin Verlander’s Walk Rates

Verlander’s walk rate in his first start of 2022 was more than double his career average, and a far cry from his elite walk rate in 2019.

That being said, this is just one game – far too small of a sample size from which to draw any serious conclusions when walk rate is concerned. If Verlander had gone just one inning more while walking one man fewer, his BB/9 would be pretty close to his career average.

Verlander has made 103 starts in his career with 7 or fewer strikeouts and 3 or more walks. He even had four such games in his MVP-winning 2011 season. It happens.

So, while Verlander’s walk rate is something to keep an eye on, it’s no cause for concern just yet.

 

No Signs of Slowing Down

 

The best indictor that Justin Verlander is not slowing down is that, quite literally, he’s not slowing down. His fastball in his 2022 debut was as fast as ever, if not even faster.

While it’s hard to draw too many conclusions from a single start, especially a 5-inning start, it doesn’t take a very big sample size to get a sense of a pitcher’s velocity. Any pitcher can have a lucky start  or an unlucky start, but you can’t really fake how hard you throw the ball. Justin Verlander’s 95 MHP fastball is a very good sign that he still has what it takes to pitch like he did in his prime.

Justin Verlander’s Fastball Velocity

Those velocity readings are all a bit different, especially the 2022 figure from Pitch Info. However, all that really matters is that Verlander is throwing the ball as hard as he ever has. That’s a good sign he can still be the pitcher he once was, and it’s particularly impressive for a 39-year-old coming off of elbow surgery and a shortened Spring Training.

In the past 15 years (since 2007) only three starting pitchers 36 or older (min. 100 IP) have posted an average velocity faster than 94 MPH: Charlier Morton and Max Scherzer in 2021, and Verlander himself in 2019.

 

In Control of His Pitches

 

Now, of course, it needs to be said that high velocity only goes so far. Fast pitches don’t mean much if those pitches aren’t going for strikes.

In Verlander’s season debut, only 58.75% of his pitchers were strikes, which is quite low. League average tends to be around 63% or 64%, while Verlander’s career average is close to 66%. In 2019, Verlander led the league in total strikes thrown and more than 68% of his pitchers were strikes.

So, while Verlander was throwing the ball as hard as ever, perhaps he was having a little more trouble locating it?

Or perhaps not.

Verlander threw 29 pitches at 95 MPH or faster (technically, 94.5 MPH or faster, I rounded up). Of those 29 pitches, 22 were strikes. That’s 76%. So while he did throw more balls than usual, his fastball wasn’t the problem.

It’s also worth pointing out that home plate umpire Jansen Visconti was not very consistent that day, and his inconsistency worked in the Angels’ favor. As you can see from the Umpire Scorecard below, at least two pitches Verlander threw were called balls even though they were within the strike zone.

Not only is Verlander still pitching with elite velocity, but there is no reason to believe he’s lost any of his command either.

 

Making Contact

 

While Verlander’s fastball command does not appear to be a problem, there is something noteworthy about the kinds of strikes he was getting.

Of the 47 strikes Verlander recorded, just 11 were strikes looking and a mere seven were strikes swinging. Those are low numbers for the two-time Cy Young winner, and that means he was allowing more contact than he usually does.

Verlander’s Swinging Strikes and Called Strikes

That’s a big dip for Verlander in called strikes, whiffs, and CSW%, which is significant because CSW% is a strong metric for predicting a pitcher’s future success.

In 2019, Verlander’s CSW% was third-best in the majors. A CSW% of 22.5% – which he posted in his 2022 debut – would have ranked dead last among all 61 qualified pitchers that season.

All that being said, one 80-pitch start is a very small sample size. If Verlander had recorded just 4 more called strikes or whiffs, his CSW% for the game would have been 27.5%, which is almost exactly his career average.

 

In Conclusion

 

So, Verlander was not as dominant in his first start of 2022 as he has been in the past. But honestly, it would be pretty shocking if he was. This was his first big league start in almost two years, and his first following Tommy John surgery. Not only that, but the man is 39 years old and his Spring Training was truncated. Considering all those extenuating factors, Verlander’s performance against the Angels was pretty freakin’ impressive.

His balls and strikes are something to keep an eye on, as are his CSW% and, in particular, his whiff rate. But what is most important is that Verlander’s velocity remains elite and he looks strong and healthy – not just for his age, either.

Whether or not he’ll be quite as dominant this season as he was at his peak remains to be seen, but if I were a betting man, I’d bet that Justin Verlander will still be very, very good in his seventeenth major league season.

 

Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Leo Morgenstern

Leo is a staff writer for the Going Deep section of Pitcher List. His sportswriting also appears on Inside the Phillies and Baseball Prospectus. When he's not writing about baseball, he works as a lead editor and special features writer for Valnet media. His comedy writing has been featured in The Beaverton and in sketch comedy festivals across North America.

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