On Wednesday, the Tigers placed Justin Verlander on the disabled list for the first time in his illustrious Major League career. Prior to that, he missed just one start (in 2014) due to injury and a couple in 2006 to protect his young arm. While the last two seasons haven’t been vintage Verlander, few pitchers have rivaled his ability to stay on the field over the last decade.
But the newly 32 year old hurler has started to butt heads with father time. Before the 2014 season, he had core muscle repair surgery. Last year, he had inflammation in his shoulder. This year, it’s a triceps strain. While the current injury appears minor enough that he’s still throwing and hasn't bothered to get an MRI, it’s another link in the aging chain.
So while many of us have opined about the future of Verlander’s performance, I’d like to pivot to a separate but related question. How much should we expect to see Verlander over the next few seasons?
If we assume that his 2020 option won’t vest, there are five seasons left on his current deal that will cover his age 32-36 seasons. Aside from his rookie year, Verlander has made at least 32 starts and thrown 200 innings in every season of his career. That’s eight straight 200 inning seasons before accounting for the extra playoff workload, which adds in 76.2 innings since 2011.
Verlander hasn’t just been great, he’s been durable. Obviously we’re all on board with the idea that we probably won’t see another 7-9 win season, but he still has the talent to be an above average to great pitcher when he’s on the field for at least a couple more years. But will his track record of durability keep up or should we start to expect more and more missed time?
In the short run, both Steamer and ZiPS, two projection systems are comfortable projecting that he’ll throw 200+ innings this year, and the Depth Charts staff at FanGraphs feels the same way. He’ll get back on the field soon and then he’ll be fine.
To see how quickly we can expect some type of wear and tear, I looked for roughly similar pitchers in terms of durability going back to 2000. I looked at pitchers who threw 1500 innings through age 30, which gave me a list of 25, ranging from Edwin Jackson’s 17.3 fWAR to C.C. Sabathia’s 57.6. What kind of durability did these pitchers have from ages 32-36?
Fifteen of the pitchers have hit age 32, but it’s kind of a scary list. Mark Buehrle is the only one to average 200+ innings per season from age 32-36. Javy Vazquez averaged 190. Dan Haren currently sits at 178 with Jake Peavy at 174. Tim Hudson is at 164 and then no one else averages 150 or more innings per year. Four guys averaged 28 or more starts per year, but the group average was 20, and that includes only the years in which these guys threw a pitch. If you didn’t survive to age 36, I simply dropped that year from the data rather than including a zero, so this is the rosy angle.
So forget about performance for a moment, the odds that Verlander gives the Tigers 180 innings a year don’t seem all that great. Some of this roll-off is injury and some is falling out of the league, but it’s generally a list of pretty good pitchers for the last couple of decades.
Certainly, there are other ways to look at this question. I only looked at major league workload, so some players who made later debuts aren't on here even if they threw plenty of minor league innings. This isn't a prediction that Verlander is going to wear down, but if you look at players who had his major league workload through age 30, their age 32-36 seasons aren't any kind of lock.
Mark Buehrle is the only one to average 200+ innings per season from age 32-36… among pitchers who threw 1500 innings through age 30, which Verlander did.
If we included ages in which the pitchers put up a zero, it’s an average of 17 starts and 107 innings per season. Four guys do better than 22 starts and 137 innings on average.
There’s no question Verlander feels like someone who is capable of that kind of durability, but these were all pitchers who were extremely durable until they weren’t. There’s more left in Verlander’s tank, but even if he straightens out the performance issues he had last year, there’s only so many bullets left.