Justin Verlander checked off a significant personal accomplishment on Nov. 3 when he picked up the first individual World Series victory of his career at age 39. It was one of the last unclaimed items on a Hall of Fame bucket list. There's still one more big item out there for Verlander, who picked up his third-career American League Cy Young award on Wednesday night.
Verlander needs 56 more regular-season victories to reach 300 for his career. If he can get there, he would be the 25th 300-game winner in MLB history and, probably, the last for some time if not all time. Nobody else is particularly close. Among active pitchers, 39-year-old Zack Greinke is next with 223 victories, 38-year-old Max Scherzer has 201 and Clayton Kershaw (who turns 35 in March) has 197.
As for other pitchers down the line, the game has changed for starters, who just aren't asked to go deep enough into enough games to pick up victories. Verlander, who turns the big four-oh next February, is an exceptional exception.
Verlander — who, like National League Cy Young winner Sandy Alcántara, won his BBWAA election unanimously — spoke during an interview on the MLB Network as if he’s game for what could come next.
“I’ve just really tried to enjoy this ride,” said Verlander, who had Tommy John surgery two years ago. “Just be very present and appreciate every moment, because it was almost taken away from me. When you're young and things go your way, you just don't understand what it takes to make things go your way.”
Verlander is a free agent this offseason, and while the possibility exists that he won't return to the Houston Astros, sticking with them might be the clearest path to future success, both regarding team and his individual results. He's reportedly seeking a contract like that of Scherzer, who signed with the Mets for three years and $130 million before the 2022 season. Three more seasons, if he can repeat his recent performance, would get him close to 300 victories. He has accumulated 55 victories over the past three full seasons, which excludes a break for most of 2020 and all of 2021 to recuperate from Tommy John.
Verlander had one of the three or four best seasons of his career in 2022, posting a league-best 1.75 ERA in 28 starts for the Astros, striking out 27.8% of his opponents and walking a career-low 4.4%. And he finally got the “W” in the Series on the ninth attempt. He's not quite at the top of his game, but Verlander also isn’t performing like someone about to be pushed out of the league.
Any pitcher in their 40s typically doesn't stay healthy or effective enough to win 56 games — but it does happen. A total of 10 pitchers won at least 56 games in their 40s, including Hall of Famers Phil Niekro (121 wins), Warren Spahn and Cy Young himself (75), Randy Johnson (73), and Nolan Ryan (71). Among those not in Cooperstown, Jamie Moyer (105), Jack Quinn (96), Bartolo Colon (76), Charlie Hough (67) and Roger Clemens (61) were prolific winners post-40. David Wells and Hoyt Wilhelm (another Hall of Famer) also got close with 54 wins apiece after age 40.
Verlander's career milestones include winning Rookie of the Year, AL MVP, two ERA titles, nine All-Star appearances and a pair of championships. He doesn't need to win 300 to authenticate himself as a Hall of Famer, but it is a reachable goal, a significant accomplishment that no one else is close to. And he’s performing better now than he was at certain points earlier in his career.
He works harder (Verlander himself says) than ever, he's more aware of what it takes to perform at his best and he's more appreciative of the opportunity. He might not do it, but it would be foolish to bet much against him winning 300 games.