Here’s Hoping Older Starters Rediscover That 2022 Magic

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

While many of my colleagues here at FanGraphs have spent the last two weeks discussing prospects, I’ve been thinking about veteran starting pitchers. I usually do. Perhaps it’s because I’m just young enough that there are still a couple of starters left from the earliest days of my fandom. Technically, the last starting pitcher to debut before I was born retired this past September… although the last one before him retired a full decade earlier. Still, I can’t really remember the days before Zack Greinke was a big league hurler, and Justin Verlander was already one of the best in the game by the time I started following baseball closely. This is the first year that I’m older than every prospect on our Top 100 list, but as long as Greinke and Verlander are still in the league, I can convince myself that I’m still a kid.

There’s no easy way to decide the age at which a “pitcher” becomes an “older pitcher.” There is evidence that certain skills start dropping off as early as age 26, while the average MLB player retires before his 30th birthday. On the other hand, in almost any other industry, some of baseball’s elder statesmen would still be considered young. Clayton Kershaw is barely old enough to run for president, while Jacob deGrom could probably still get cast as a teenager on The CW. Personally, I think of 36 as the age when a player enters “older” territory. There isn’t anything scientific about it (and believe me, I tried to find a more scientific answer – there’s just no magic number), but 36 is the entry point into the late 30s. It’s an age at which no one is too surprised to see a player retire, nor is anyone overly shocked to see a talented player sign a lucrative, multi-year deal.

In 2022, pitchers age 36 and older were amazing. Relievers in that age range did well (especially Daniel Bard, Chris Martin, and Adam Ottavino), but it was the starters who did most of the heavy lifting. They combined for a 3.53 ERA, 3.66 FIP, and 23.8 WAR (1.77 WAR per 100 IP). The last time starters age 36 and older produced more than 23 WAR was 2007, when John Smoltz, then 40, Tom Glavine, then 41, and Greg Maddux, then 41, helped older starters throw nearly twice as many innings as they did in 2022. The last time older starters were so valuable on a per-inning basis was all the way back in 2001, when Randy Johnson, then 37, and Roger Clemens, then 38, took home their fourth and sixth Cy Young awards, respectively.

For comparison, the average starter under 36 had a 4.07 ERA, 4.06 FIP, and was worth just 1.24 WAR per 100 IP in 2022. The older cohort will always benefit from survivorship bias, but even so, it’s rare to see older starters perform so much better (if better at all) than their younger counterparts. The last time older starters were this much better than the younger ones, in terms of FIP and WAR/IP, was 2003; if you go by ERA, 2002 was the last time.

To be sure, the top two arms in the cohort, Verlander and Max Scherzer, deserve the lion’s share of the credit. Verlander won the AL Cy Young with one of the best age-39 seasons in recent memory, while Scherzer, then 37, could have seriously challenged Sandy Alcantara for the NL award were it not for a couple of stints on the injured list. However, six more veteran starters threw over 120 innings with at least 1.5 WAR: Greinke, Corey Kluber, Adam Wainwright, Johnny Cueto, Rich Hill, and Charlie Morton.

While the strong performance of older starters in 2022 was unexpected, that’s not to say it came out of nowhere. Every year since the start of the 2019 season, pitchers age 36 and older have thrown a higher percentage of all starter innings than they did the year before. Their collective ERA and WAR/IP were better than those of their younger counterparts in every season from 2019–22. Older starters were getting more opportunities and making the most of them.

Then the 2023 season happened. Heading into the year, there were plenty of reasons to believe older starters would continue to thrive. All eight of the aforementioned veterans were set to return. At least some decline was expected from the Elder Eight — especially from Verlander and his 1.75 ERA — but reinforcements were on the way, with five younger talents aging into the group. Joining the fold were three recent All-Stars and Cy Young vote-getters, Lance Lynn, Yu Darvish, and Hyun Jin Ryu, as well as two lesser but typically dependable pitchers, Wade Miley and Carlos Carrasco. Those were some top prospects! Unfortunately, even as the workloads for older pitchers continued to rise, their collective performance did not.

Morton was the only member of the Elder Eight who improved in 2023. After finishing 2022 with a 3.10 ERA and 4.1 WAR, Darvish posted a 4.56 ERA last year, though that was still enough for a respectable 2.4 WAR, and missed the final 37 days of the season with an elbow injury. Carrasco was below replacement level last season, as his ERA ballooned to 6.80, and had two IL stints that cost him a combined 60 days. And then there was Lynn, whose decline was perhaps the most astonishing of the older pitchers. Last year, he gave up 44 home runs, the most by any pitcher in a season since Bronson Arroyo (46 homers) in 2011; after averaging 0.9 HR/9 over his first 11 big league seasons, Lynn allowed 2.16 HR/9 last year, the second-worst rate ever for a qualified starter in a single season, behind only Jose Lima and his 2.2 rate in 2000.

Meanwhile, Miley had a sweet-as-pie 3.14 ERA, but his 4.69 FIP wasn’t so nice, and although Ryu pitched well (3.46 ERA), he made only 11 starts because he missed the first four months of the season as he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery.

Ultimately, the biggest problem was how poorly the worst members of the age group performed, but it also hurt that the guys at the top (Verlander and Scherzer) took a step back, and no new aces emerged in their place. It’s worth mentioning that the table below includes only what these pitchers did as starters last season, though four of them (Kluber, Hill, Cueto, and Greinke) pitched in relief, as well.

Older Starters in 2023 and 2022
Pitcher 2023 ERA 2022 ERA 2023 FIP 2022 FIP 2023 WAR 2022 WAR
Adam Wainwright 7.40 3.71 5.99 3.66 -0.4 2.9
Carlos Carrasco 6.80 3.97 5.86 3.53 -0.3 2.5
Charlie Morton 3.64 4.34 3.87 4.26 2.7 1.5
Corey Kluber 6.26 4.34 6.57 3.57 -0.4 3.0
Hyun Jin Ryu 3.46 5.67 4.91 4.78 0.4 0.1
Johnny Cueto 6.41 3.29 6.92 3.76 -0.6 2.5
Justin Verlander 3.22 1.75 3.85 2.49 3.3 6.0
Lance Lynn 5.73 3.99 5.53 3.82 0.5 1.9
Max Scherzer 3.77 2.29 4.32 2.62 2.2 4.4
Rich Hill 5.57 4.27 4.99 3.92 0.6 1.8
Wade Miley 3.14 3.34 4.69 4.00 1.1 0.5
Yu Darvish 4.56 3.10 4.03 3.31 2.4 4.1
Zack Greinke 5.02 3.68 4.74 4.03 1.1 1.9

Overall, starters age 36 and older saw their WAR nearly slashed in half. Their ERA- rose from 89 to 111, while their FIP- climbed from 93 to 111. Only twice in the last 50 years have older starters had a worse FIP compared to league average; similarly, only four times have they produced less WAR/IP. On the bright side, older starters made an additional 49 starts and threw nearly 200 more innings than they did the year before. Thus, they continued the trend of older starters taking on heavier workloads for the fifth consecutive season. We haven’t quite reached the levels of the early 2000s, when older starters were throwing 9-10% of all starter innings, but we have returned from the dark days of the mid-2010s when it looked like older starting pitchers were becoming an endangered species. However, if this trend is to continue, older starters will need to provide better results.

So, what are the prospects for older starters in 2024? Once again, there is reason for optimism. A couple of last season’s worst performers, Wainwright and Kluber, have retired. A few more, such as Cueto and Carrasco, are unlikely to make many starts unless they earn the opportunity. Moreover, while it would be fair to assume that some of the top performers from last year will take a step back, some bounceback candidates can make up the difference. Darvish had much better peripherals last year (3.74 xERA, 4.03 FIP) than his 4.56 ERA would suggest, while Lynn projects to have a large positive regression after his uncharacteristically bad season; his 2.2 projected Depth Charts WAR would be a tremendous improvement upon his 0.5 WAR in 2023.

Even better, several (relatively) young guns are entering their age-36 season. Joining the club are Kershaw, deGrom, Alex Cobb, Kenta Maeda, and Kyle Gibson (and, uh, Dallas Keuchel). Gibson is quite reliable, though his ceiling is not as high as the others in this group, and the same is true for Maeda if he can stay healthy. Both should help raise the cohort’s floor. Meanwhile, Keuchel probably won’t pitch enough to have a strong effect either way. Kershaw, deGrom, and Cobb will all start the season on the injured list, but perhaps between the three of them, they could provide a full season’s worth of starts. If they do, the three-headed monster of deCobbshaw might be the best pitcher in the whole age group. Our Depth Charts projections have deCobbshaw making 34 starts with a 3.60 ERA and 3.8 WAR. Could Verlander or Darvish match that level of production? It’s possible, but I wouldn’t call it likely, and the projections seem to agree. Here is what our Depth Charts have to say:

Depth Charts Projections for Older Starters in 2024
Pitcher IP ERA K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 FIP WAR
Alex Cobb 87 3.75 8.04 2.72 2.95 0.78 3.61 1.5
Carlos Carrasco 64 4.74 7.78 3.10 2.51 1.36 4.66 0.3
Charlie Morton 164 4.14 9.84 3.76 2.61 1.15 4.21 2.1
Clayton Kershaw 71 3.64 9.10 2.32 3.93 1.26 3.90 1.4
Dallas Keuchel 51 4.93 6.23 3.77 1.65 1.15 4.89 0.3
Jacob deGrom 27 2.87 12.86 2.01 6.40 1.13 2.76 0.9
Johnny Cueto 91 4.96 5.83 2.44 2.39 1.48 5.05 0.5
Justin Verlander 164 4.03 7.88 2.58 3.06 1.29 4.33 2.3
Kenta Maeda 123 4.29 8.80 2.73 3.22 1.29 4.18 1.6
Kyle Gibson 175 4.41 7.13 3.16 2.26 1.13 4.50 2.0
Lance Lynn 175 4.40 8.32 2.94 2.83 1.35 4.48 2.2
Max Scherzer 93 3.96 9.96 2.38 4.18 1.47 4.11 1.6
Rich Hill 59 4.87 7.43 3.19 2.33 1.52 5.05 0.3
Wade Miley 133 4.38 6.41 3.14 2.04 1.25 4.79 1.2
Yu Darvish 176 4.06 8.88 2.38 3.73 1.28 4.09 2.8
Zack Greinke 113 4.74 5.91 2.06 2.87 1.38 4.71 1.0
TOTALS 1,766 4.38 8.03 2.82 2.84 1.27 4.37 22.1

That 22.1 WAR figure is awfully close to the 23.8 WAR older starters produced in 2022, and the 1,766 IP projection would make 2024 the sixth straight season in which older starters took on a heavier workload. I’d take the playing time estimates with a grain of salt for the pitchers who haven’t signed yet, but still, the projections are enough to get me excited about an old guy revival. They may not quite reach the heights of the 2022 season, but this group features future Hall of Famers padding their résumés, pitchers who could be All-Stars this year, and beloved journeymen still chugging along. After several disappointing seasons for older starters in the 2010s, we’re lucky to be watching so many talented pitchers prolong their careers in 2024. And I’m happy to feel like a kid for at least one more year.





Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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Chip Lockemember
1 month ago

That subheading is the greatest accomplishment of Alex Cobb’s career.

Jon L.member
1 month ago
Reply to  Chip Locke

Unfortunately, one has to go back to the homepage and locate the article again in order to see what you’re talking about and upvote your accurate snark.