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Do Verlander and Greinke have enough gas left to carry the Astros’ staff?

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MLB: World Series-Washington Nationals at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Having lost Gerrit Cole, Wade Miley, and Collin McHugh, the Astros look weak in the middle and back of the rotation. With Verlander and Greinke both 37 years old this year, are we sure the Astros are even solid in the front of the rotation?

How much can we expect from the Astros’ rotation after Verlander and Greinke?

“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.”

(Shortened version of a poem about the pitching staff of the 1948 NL champs, the Milwaukee Braves.)

A starting rotation heavy with talent at the top, but questionable after positions one and two. That was the lament of the poet above, and it may well be the fate of the Astros in 2020. Sure, Lance McCullers was once the big bonus baby, and he threw 24 straight unhittable curves at the Yankees in the 2017 ALCS. But in 2020 he’s coming off Tommy John surgery. McCullers? This is the outlook on McCullers.

Has Brad Peacock ever shown consistency?

Jose Urquidy? He’s had a couple good games, but face it, he’s still a rookie, and rather unheralded at that. But it’s always fun to root for Cinderella.

Looks like Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke will have to carry the staff this year. Will this become our refrain in 2020?

Verlander and Greinke. After that it’s pretty hinky.

(Sorry, try to forget you ever read that).

Can we really rely on 37 year-olds at the top of the rotation?

But wait. Spahn and Sain were in the primes of their careers when the Braves broke training camp in 1948. Justin Verlander will be 37 this season, and Greinke will turn 37 in October. Can two old men really carry this team?

Though past results cannot reliably predict future performance, I thought it would be interesting to see how Hall of Fame pitchers of the recent past performed in the 36 and above years of their careers. I don’t think I need to argue that Justin Verlander has already earned an eventual trip to Cooperstown, or that Zack Greinke is on the cusp.

Below is a chart of the Hall of Fame starting pitchers who pitched a considerable part of their careers after 1980. I chose recent pitchers for comparison because the closer you get to the current state of baseball the more likely pitchers were protected from excessive use. Apples to apples and all that.

In this chart we will examine the age 36 year-old performances of the pitchers under consideration, and how they pitched at age 37 and beyond. We will use Baseball Reference’s ERA+, which makes 100 the average ERA for a season league-wide, and every point above 100 represents one percent above average ERA performance.

Obviously, the point here is to use history to predict the likelihood that Verlander and Greinke can continue to pitch at the level they have up to now.

(Although not in the Hall of Fame, Roger Clemens was included in this list)

Analysis:

  1. All but three of these thirteen pitchers pitched 20 or more seasons. The upcoming season will be Verlander’s 16th, and Greinke’s 17th. One recent Hall of Famer, Roy Halladay, retired at age 36, his 16th season.
  2. Eight of eleven pitchers did worse in their age 37 season than in their age 36 seasons. I did not include Pedro Martinez*, who was injured and only pitched 44 innings in his age 36 season. John Smoltz** was a relief pitcher in his age 36 and 37 seasons and his statistics have not been included in the age 36 and 37 averages.
  3. The ERA+ on average declined from 128 to 112 from the age 36 to age 37 seasons.
  4. Eight of the thirteen of these Hall of Famers continued to pitch above ERA+ 100 from their age 37 seasons until the end of their careers. The age 36+ average was 107. This was down from the career average of this group of 123.
  5. The six pitchers who had the highest number of innings by age 36 had an average ERA+ after age 36 of 102, indicating, in a small sample, that innings pitched takes an additional toll at the end of a career above and beyond normal aging. Verlander and Greinke are on the low side of innings pitched at age 36.
  6. Verlander had the best age 36 season of anyone on this list except for Randy Johnson. Only Johnson and Greg Maddux had better seasons than Greinke’s in 2019.
  7. How did the high achieving age 36 year-olds do the next season and for the rest of their careers? Johnson actually improved from ERA+ 181 to ERA+ 188 in his age 37 season. His post age 36 ERA+ was the second best of this lot, 132, just behind Roger Clemens. Speaking of Clemens, he went from 102 at age 36 to 131 at age 37.
  8. But Greg Maddux dropped from 159 to 109, with a post 36 ERA+ of only 104. Steve Carlton dropped from 151 to 119, with a post 36 ERA+ of 97. Tom Glavine dropped from 140 to 93, with a post 36 ERA + of 105. Tom Seaver dropped from 140 to 67, with a post 36 ERA+ of 105.

What does all this prove? Nothing. After near career-best seasons at the age of 36 or almost 36, Verlander and Greinke could improve like Randy Johnson, but chances are much better that both experience regression, not just to career averages, but towards even lower end-of-career averages. As a side note, both had xFIPs last year considerably higher than their ERAs, which would also indicate negative regression.

On the other hand, they might age like Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan, John Smoltz, or Roger Clemens, all of whom pitched into their 40’s at almost the same proficiency as they did in their prime years.

Of our two pitchers, Verlander appears to more closely fit the profile of the pitchers above, fastball pitchers who stressed conditioning and thereby maintained their fastball velocity into their 40’s.

Greinke, who has lost his velocity, now has to rely exclusively on finesse. In that, his late career more closely resembles Tom Seaver or Pedro Martinez, guys who didn’t age as well, although Seaver did manage to win 16 games at age 40 with a 3.17 ERA.

We should be happy to get something close to that from either pitcher. Steamer projects sixteen wins and eight losses from Verlander, down from 21 wins last year, with a 3.46 ERA, about a run more than last year. His WAR is expected to drop to 5.6 from last year’s 6.4.

Greinke’s outlook is even less optimistic. Steamer gives him 13 wins, down from 18 last year, with an ERA at 4.26, more than a run and a quarter more than last year’s. He is only expected to attain 2.8 WAR, about half of last year’s total.

Overall, the #s 1 and 2 pitchers for the Astros in 2019, Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, produced 7.4 and 6.4 fWAR respectively, (13.8). This year’s 1 and 2’s are projected to produce only 8.4.

Verlander and Greinke, and pray hard for McCullers, Peacock and Urquidy.

And throw in a few for Verlander and Greinke too, while you’re at it. Or World peace.

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