photo of Mets pitcher Juston Verlander throwing ball

Pitching at 40: How Long Can He Go?

n.b. This is a superb article on wondrous athletes who have not only been fabulously successful during the peaks of their career, but who have endured. That is their ultimate greatness. They evolved, further excelling as their bodies changed with passage of time. Their advice is consistent: know oneself, respect oneself, work with oneself. The incessant noise today about reversing age, about “beating” time misses a critical point each of these athletes powerfully represent. Yes, we can, should and must take better care of ourselves, and that will pay off in greatly enhanced quality and quantity of life, but principles of self care require deep knowledge and perspective. These men speak of making changes that reflected their changing biology: “finding what works and spending my time on that, less time on everything else”; and consistently, from each player: “listen to my body”.

And each of them continued to find meaning and purpose in work that further fueled capacity. These marvels were psychologically attuned, engaging their minds to shift their frames and their behavior. And to a person, they prevailed. They exemplify powerful epigenetic principles in the healthiest, most productive and life-enhancing way. We continue to thank them all for their inspiration and guidance. We applaud the continuing greatness of Mr. Verlander, wishing him all continuing success. “I am always still constantly searching for new information,” Verlander says, “I am not afraid to change.” And he will. Only for the better, we hope. rss

MLB legends consider the future of Justin Verlander, pitching at 40: “No telling how long he can keep going

At 40 years old, Justin Verlander may be the game’s best pitcher.

Last season, Verlander won the American League Cy Young Award. This week, after opening the season on the injured list because of a minor strain in the back of his armpit, he is expected to make his debut with the Mets, who rewarded him this winter with a two-year contract worth $86.7 million. He will join Max Scherzer, 38, in a rotation heavy on talent and experience. Whether the Mets can fulfill their aspirations for the season will depend partly on whether Verlander can maintain greatness with age.

How long can Verlander keep this up? After all, the league features other aces and other 40-year-old pitchers. But only Verlander remains both.

To better understand what it’s like to prolong an elite pitching career, and to assess Verlander’s chances of doing the same, The Athletic consulted with five Hall of Famers with first-hand experience: Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Randy Johnson.

What followed was a masterclass on the art of pitching at 40.

Ryan tossed two no-hitters in his 40s and twice finished in the top five in voting for the Cy Young Award. At 41 and 42, Maddux won consecutive Gold Glove Awards. In their 40s, Glavine and Smoltz each appeared in an All-Star Game. In his age-40 season, Johnson twirled a perfect game and finished runner-up for the National League Cy Young Award. He then pitched five more seasons.

“So,” Johnson said over the phone recently, “you wanna talk about getting old?”

“It’s a challenging time

To keep from jinxing himself, Verlander knocked on a clubhouse wall.

“I feel great,” he said inside the Mets’ spring training clubhouse.

Perhaps he should’ve knocked harder. Hours before the Mets began their season on March 30, Verlander landed on the injured list with a low-grade teres major strain. The injury surprised Verlander, who all spring had looked in top shape. But he missed all of 2021 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2020, and last season, the Astros were careful with his usage; Verlander pitched on four days’ rest just five times. Including the postseason, he still made 32 starts and tossed 195 innings.

Historically, Verlander’s season ranked as one of the best. No pitcher in his age-39 season had ever thrown more than 150 innings with a sub-2.00 ERA until Verlander tossed 175 innings with a 1.75 ERA after returning from Tommy John surgery.

From 2006-2019, Verlander stood out as a picture of durability, averaging 32 starts and 212 innings per season. However, even before this spring, there have been blips. The only time he made fewer than 30 starts or tossed less than 185 innings came in 2015 because of what he called a lat injury. The year prior, he underwent core muscle surgery, the nadir of a season that stands out as the worst of his career: 4.54 ERA, 85 ERA+. That all coincided with Verlander beginning his early 30s.

“Everybody always told me back then, ‘Oh, you get to be 30 and things change,’” Verlander said in spring training. “That was the first time in my life that things started hurting, my body wasn’t feeling good. I was like, ‘F—, man. Is this what 30 is like? Are all these people right? I didn’t see this happening to me.’

“Sure enough, when I realized that I had all these issues in my core, it was like a light bulb. It made sense. It was like, ‘Oh, that’s why I am hurting. Not because I am f—— 30.’ It’s because I had something wrong with me.

“After that, after I learned how to take care of my body better, I still feel the same. I recover just as well as I ever have. I feel like I move just as well as I ever have. I probably move more efficiently now than I did when I was 28.”

Verlander cited his injury last month as an example of him understanding his body. The day before the season opener in Miami, he told the Mets about discomfort in the area of his shoulder after a bullpen. That led to an MRI exam the next day that revealed the minor strain. He has said multiple times that this wasn’t the way he envisioned starting his Mets career, but he remained optimistic. The mildness of the injury allowed Verlander to keep throwing, and he stressed that if it had happened at a different time of the year, he would’ve taken the mound. In his rehab outing with Double-A Binghamton, Verlander sat around 94 mph and hit 95 mp. Ahead of his rehab start last week, Verlander said, “Throwing feels absolutely wonderful.”

For how long will that be the case?

Glavine: To go on the IL for the first time in my career with a leg injury was not something I would have ever anticipated. But it happened. It was my last year, in ’08. I was 42. It was a freak thing. I tore my hamstring. And then later that year, I tore my elbow, my flexor tendon. That was probably a result of age and wear and tear at that stage of the game with I don’t know how many innings under my belt.

Ryan: It’s a challenging time in any major leaguer’s or any athlete’s career because of the effects the aging process has on you. And then also the amount of stress that your body’s been put through over all this time.

Smoltz: If I didn’t have the shoulder surgery, which I knew I was going to have, I could’ve pitched another three more years.

Glavine: I don’t know that I necessarily had any more issues with my arm when I was in my 40s than I did sometimes when I was in my late 20s.

Johnson: Having the back issues that I had, it was critical that I had a physical therapist that was able to get my back in line. So not only was I dealing with age, I was dealing with physical breakdown as well, just because I was so tall. My knees, my back, those were the weak links with being a power pitcher and being 6-foot-10.

Glavine: Your body is a little bit different.

Johnson: Age never presented a problem because I was so adamant about working out and staying on top of my regimen.

Maddux: Physically, I felt great. In my last two years, I was probably in the best shape of my career.

“Your body will tell you

When it comes to Verlander’s routine, he has learned not to waste time.

“I’ve taken away a lot of the bulls—,” Verlander said. “I trimmed the fat.”

For example, Verlander doesn’t run anymore. Occasionally, he may do sprints. He focuses more on mobility, less on gaining strength. He lifts weights in the offseason, but doesn’t lift much during the season. With Verlander, there’s a reason for everything.

“I picture it as, every time I throw, I am winding my body up, creating compensation,” Verlander said. “I try to unwind those during the season. And when I get in the weight room in the offseason, it’s just like, all right, let me make sure my strength is still there and where I want it, which usually takes a few weeks until I build back up. After that, it’s all right, let’s be explosive and fast-twitch, move quickly, move weight quickly. Don’t get stuck in slow patterns.

“Basically, it’s finding what works and spending my time on that. Less time on everything else.”

How does routine change as elite pitchers age? What to take out? What to leave in?

Ryan: Well, what I did is I realized that I had to listen to my body.

Johnson: Your body will tell you what you can and can’t do.

Ryan: If I had a hard game where I threw a lot of pitches, it was human, and it took a lot out of me. I had to reduce my workout program until my body recovered. And what happens is if you get into a deficit and you don’t give yourself time to recover, you go deeper into a deficit and it takes longer to recover. I realized that if I was going to be ready on my fifth day to pitch and be at the top of my game, then in-between starts, I had to adjust my program if my body told me that.

Maddux: I became more disciplined.

Smoltz: I threw two times every start for about 10 straight years. But when I got older I had to pick and choose when I could do that. There were times where I didn’t throw at all in between starts.

Johnson: Maybe you don’t throw a full bullpen. You save your bullets for the game. Maybe you just play catch or have an easy bullpen session.

Glavine: There’s a lot of things I did – running, all those things in my late 20s and early 30s – that I curtailed a little bit as I got older. Your body takes a little bit of a beating and it takes its toll.

Maddux: I was more consistent with my workouts. When you’re in your 20s, it’s easy to skip workouts and not lose anything.

Smoltz: When you get older, you listen to your body a little bit more than your brain because your brain always tells you what you think you know and what you should be doing, and that doesn’t always work.

“There’s some satisfaction to that

Verlander’s talent and resume is what drew Mets officials to him. But according to general manager Billy Eppler, it was the pitcher’s willingness to challenge the status quo that helped convince them that he had staying power. Verlander’s career acts as confirmation. Over time, Verlander has evolved, changing his mechanics, lowering his release point and fiddling with pitch usage.

“I am always still constantly searching for new information,” Verlander said. “I am not afraid to change.”

The greats know that there isn’t much of a choice. That’s especially true for power pitchers. By the mid-1980s, Ryan turned to a changeup. While trying to improve his mechanics as a younger hurler, Johnson concentrated on adding different fastballs to his repertoire and working the outside part of the plate, believing that eventually he would need to adapt. He was right. Similarly, Verlander has acted proactively in his own development, often tinkering with a changeup during spring training despite rarely deploying the pitch. One day, that might change.

How do elite pitchers learn to adapt? What needed to be changed? Why?

Smoltz: Imagine driving a car with power brakes and power steering. You get used to that. Now go back 15 years and get a car that doesn’t have power brakes and power steering. You can still drive it. But it doesn’t feel the same. It’s a little harder. That’s the way I felt.

Maddux: I just threw slower. So pitch selection became even more important.

Smoltz: I felt like my fastball didn’t have the late life, but I could locate it. My slider still had good break. My curveball was effective. And my split was still good. So I could pitch if I wanted to with my slider or pitch out of the pen.

But I didn’t want to hang on just to hang on. I wanted to be effective.

Johnson: There’s some satisfaction to that, being able to transition from one type of pitcher to another and still be fairly successful.

Glavine: I don’t really know that there was a time in my 40s where I thought, ‘Man, I can’t do something anymore that I used to be able to do when I was 28.’

Maybe like the consistency factor with command. Or maybe my changeup didn’t have as much action on it as it did one time. I think those things, they’re probably a little less noticeable than the guy who throws 95-96 and all of a sudden is throwing 91-92.

Johnson: I was 46 and I’m facing a lot of younger kids playing the game that are now up for their first year and they probably have seen me pitch when I was throwing better, when I was throwing 100 miles an hour and now they’re facing me when on a good day with the wind at my back, I might have been throwing 91.

I am not out there staring people down and doing what I did back in the day. I was looking for contact. It’s natural. No one was immune to it. No one escapes getting older. Even Nolan.

Ryan: Well, the changeup became a very important pitch to me. And the reason being is there’d be given nights where I might not have had a good fastball. And so what it did was it complimented my fastball.

Johnson: As I got more successful at being a power pitcher, I tried to understand a little bit more about pitching and what makes a pitcher successful. And then as I got older, it was an easier transition to become that pitcher because I was already developing those pitches and understanding that I can’t just throw the ball by hitters.

Ryan: If I had to be just a fastball-curveball pitcher, it would have been a bigger challenge for me on that given night. The changeup allowed me to use my fastball. Whereas if I didn’t have the changeup, it wouldn’t have been as effective a pitch.

Maddux: The only thing I did differently was I backed up the outfield.

Glavine: I was never a velocity guy, right? But, I mean, I guess as you got older, you kind of noticed that maybe you didn’t have quite the zip on the ball anymore, or maybe you didn’t have quite the location that you once did or quite the movement that you once did. Those are some adjustments you have to make.

OK, let’s face it, sometimes there are things you can do at 28 that you can’t do at 40.

“The most delicate thing

After 17 major-league seasons, the bad starts still torment Verlander. He’s not used to them. He’s used to greatness. Last season, he allowed more than three runs in just two of 28 starts. Failure ruins his sleep. Restless in bed, he recalls pitches, analyzes decisions and thinks to himself, “How could I have changed things? What could I have done different?”

“It bugs the f—— hell out of me,” Verlander said. “I spend hours trying to figure out what the hell went wrong.

“I come in the next day, I am reinvigorated, and ready to, like, fix everything.”

Tenacity, among other things, makes him one of the greats. However, as prolific pitchers age, they face a new twist on an old battle. Verlander isn’t there yet, but maybe one day he’ll encounter it.

It’s called doubt.

Does failure register differently with age? Does it get harder to shrug off a poor outing?

Maddux: Not necessarily. You learn how to win, right? The same thing happens with losing. I learned how to be a really good loser. Losing is a part of it. I just evaluated it as a bad start and tried to learn from it.

Smoltz: The only thing your mind tells you that you got to be careful of is you still think you can do everything.

Ryan: You don’t know how the aging process is gonna affect you. You have to understand that if you didn’t perform on a given night, what was the reason for it?

Glavine: One of the harder things to dissect in my brain was when you have a bad start. Do you start to question your age, and can I do what I want to do anymore, or was it just a bad start?

Johnson: Things can creep in, especially if it’s back-to-back or a bad month or any of that. And I definitely had my moments. There were a lot of empty feelings on the mound at times when you would have bad games and doubt starts to creep in. That’s not to say that I didn’t have bad games when I was younger. It just seems like when you’re older, the bad games are a little uglier, you know?

Glavine: Earlier in my career, where I hadn’t really established myself consistently, you have a bad start, there’s that doubt about, OK, do I belong here? And you get a little bit more established, you’ve had some success, yes, it gets a little bit easier to brush off a bad start, try to learn from it, move on.

And then as you get older, you have a bad start and you naturally go to, at least to some extent, your age. And whether you do it yourself or the prognosticators bring it up on radio shows or in articles, whatever the case may be, it’s hard to ignore.

That was probably the most delicate thing mentally at that stage of my career.

“This Guy’s a Beast”

Why continue to pitch so long? Among the greats, motivation varied. For instance, Johnson wanted 300 wins – which he achieved. But they all shared the overall sentiment. Glavine put it simplest:“Why do it? Because we want to.”

“As an athlete, we know that our shelf life is limited,” Glavine said. “And you want to maintain that shelf life as long as you can. You don’t get another crack at it.”

Whenever Verlander discusses his age and career, he mentions his 3-year-old daughter and reaches for metaphors. It’d be like running a marathon and stopping a mile from the finish line, Verlander said, then added, “Maybe I’m 10 miles from the finish line.” He says he’d set a poor example for her if he stopped now.

“I’ve given my life to this game,” Verlander said. “I’ve gotten myself this far with a lot of hard work. A ton of hard work. I am sure as hell not going to cut it short now. If anything, I am going to work harder now.”

Here’s how our panel of Hall of Famers fared in their 40s.

Tom Glavine79461 2/31.41257100
Randy Johnson1641,0131,1351,004116
Greg Maddux1016021.223319100
Nolan Ryan1961271 2/31.1481,437116
John Smoltz53311 2/31.248306113

How will Verlander do?

Maddux: Last season, I watched a playoff game or late-season game that Verlander pitched. I was amazed. His breaking stuff was still sharp. His fastball was still there.

Johnson: On the teams that he’s played, whether it was in Houston or now with the New York Mets, he’s got offense, good defense and he’s got a good bullpen, and those are essential. You can save bullets by being able to come out of a game and having a bullpen that can pick you up so you don’t have to feel like you have to go and pitch an extra inning or two.

Smoltz: Don’t be surprised if Justin Verlander pitches until 43.

Glavine: Now I do think that as you get older you tend to lose a little bit, although for Verlander, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Smoltz: He’s got certain goals I think he wants to reach even though he’s already plugged himself into the Hall of Fame.

Ryan: With his work ethic, body type and the way they use him, his chances have improved considerably.

Smoltz: This guy’s a beast.

Maddux: There’s no telling how long he can keep going.

Smoltz:  I’ve said since the time I retired that everybody should be looking at Justin Verlander. We’re not going to see starting pitchers in four years at this current rate ever even get to maybe 35. When you see the decline of innings, that’s one thing. When you see the decline of years, that starts getting really concerning to a guy who loves the game. Verlander, he’s a 10-speed bike. He doesn’t pitch in 10th gear all the time. He has gears. He knows his body. He has survived two eras of baseball.

Johnson: He’s going into playing at age 40 like this, he must be doing something right.

Glavine: In Verlander’s case, the question wouldn’t be why are you doing it. It’d be, why wouldn’t you be doing it?

excerpted from an article by Will Sammon, “MLB Legends on Justin Verlander, Pitching at 40: ‘No Telling How Long He Can Keep Going’ ” published in The Athletic, 2 May 2023