All throughout the 2019 season and postseason, Major League Baseball has been promoting itself by bringing attention to all of the outstanding young players in the league. Advertisements using the slogan “Let the kids play” highlight many of the young stars who have been running the league since the start of last year’s playoffs. It’s pretty clear why: rising stars like Juan Soto, Cody Bellinger, and Ronald Acuña, Jr. have all become the faces of their respective franchises after just a few years in the league. It’s an exciting time to be a baseball fan.
However, this article will not be about the kids. While young players are thriving in the league, there are also many older players who defied their age in 2019 and proved that they can still compete. So today, we’re going to show our appreciation for the older folks in baseball and point out a few notable campaigns from more experienced players. The following players were all 35 or over at the start of the season and all stood out in some way in 2019.
Honorable Mention: Ichiro Suzuki
Remember when Ichiro played the final two games of his career in the first two games of the 2019 MLB season in front of his home nation? And the emotional farewell ceremony? I couldn’t write this article without giving a nod to one of my personal favorite baseball players of all time, and truly one of the most inspirational athletes of his generation. Ichiro was the oldest player to play in the 2019 season at 45 and is tied for the 14th-oldest player to play in an MLB game in the sport’s long history. Thank you, Ichiro, and we’ll see you in Cooperstown.
This one was the easiest to identify, given that he’s posted yet another Cy Young-worthy season, but Justin Verlander continued his career resurgence with the Astros in 2019. He was the league leader in WHIP at 0.803, and he finished the season tied for the MLB lead in WAR by a pitcher (7.4) and Win Probability Added by a pitcher (5.6), per Baseball Reference. He also tied for 2nd in the majors in ERA+ (179), 2nd in strikeouts (300), and 2nd in K/BB (7.143). Verlander recorded the third no-hitter of his career on September 1st against Toronto, becoming just the sixth pitcher in MLB history to record at least three no-hitters. In his final start of the season, JV recorded his 3000th career strikeout, becoming the 18th pitcher in league history to achieve such a feat. What might be the most amazing part of Verlander’s 2019 season is his durability at the spry young age of 36: Verlander led the majors in IP at 223 and started 34 games, spending exactly zero days on the IL. Whether or not the BBWAA agrees that he deserves the Cy Young Award remains to be seen, but Justin Verlander clearly had no intentions of yielding to his age in 2019.
Coming off of an injury-shortened season, Howie Kendrick proved to be more than just a utility man for the Nationals. He did not debut until April 6 and started the season slowly, but he slashed .344/.395/.572 in 121 games and posted career highs in OPS+ (142), wRC+ (146), wOBA (.400), and Win Probability Added (2.54). Kendrick also recorded a career-best Hard-hit% at 45.5, as well as the second-highest BB% of his career (7.3) and the highest fWAR (2.9) of his career since his final season with the Angels in 2014. He even managed to fulfill his role as a utility player in the field for the Nats, playing three different positions in the infield throughout the season. Kendrick’s name has been all over the media in more recent days due to his performance in the postseason. Kendrick’s extra-inning grand slam sent the Nats to their first NLCS since 1981 when they were the Expos. In the NLCS, he went 5-for-15 (.333) with four doubles and two walks, earning the team their first World Series appearance in franchise history and earning himself NLCS MVP honors. Howie Kendrick will continue his stellar 36-year-old season in his first trip to the Fall Classic.
Up until joining the Astros, Charlie Morton was little more than a back-end rotation starter who was almost always at or around replacement level. Then, after a World Series win in 2017 and an All-Star selection in 2018, Morton signed a two-year deal with the Rays worth $30 million and got right to work on his best season to date. Morton posted career-lows in ERA (3.05), FIP (2.81), and WHIP (1.084), as well as career-highs in IP (194.2), strikeouts (240), ERA+ (146), K/BB (4.21), and fWAR (6.1). Morton dominated in the postseason as well, pushing the Rays past Oakland in the Wild Card Game on five scoreless innings and holding a dangerous Astros lineup to just one run while recording 9 strikeouts. Many have identified the competition for the 2019 AL Cy Young Award as a two-horse race this year, but Charlie Morton may pick up a fair share of well-deserved 3rd-place votes. With 2019 being the most productive season of his 12-year career, Charlie Morton continues to silence doubters even at the age of 35.
One thing needs to be made clear: Yadier Molina’s best years as a batter are far behind him now, and he will likely be remembered as just a mediocre hitter with a career 98 OPS+. However, Molina is still a dominant presence behind the plate in his 15th season in the majors. At the age of 37, Yadi posted an above-average Caught Stealing% (27) and average pop time (1.98) in 111 games at catcher. His age may be showing more than other players on this list, as he played in fewer games than any season since 2014 and posted a career-low in Defensive Runs Above Average at 8.8, but the mark was still good for 17th among all players with at least 450 plate appearances. However, it is clear that Cardinals opponents are still very much afraid of Molina’s abilities at catcher: against the Cardinals this year, teams tried to steal just 56 times. The second-lowest mark in 2019 was the Padres at 78. Opposing managers know who they’re dealing with, and as such the Cardinals don’t have to worry about opposing baserunners going for steals as much as other teams. Even in the twilight of his career, Yadier Molina is a force to be reckoned with, and he will be an unparalleled mentor to whoever takes over at catcher in St. Louis.
Nelson Cruz has always been known as one of the premier power hitters in baseball, and he showed no signs of regression in 2019. He helped the Bomba Squad in Minneapolis set the single-season team home run record, contributing 41 of his own, tied for 3rd in the AL. He posted career-highs in wRC+ (163, 3rd in AL) and OPS (1.031, 2nd in AL), as well as in wOBA (.417). Otherwise, Cruz posted a BB% above his career average and his highest fWAR (4.4) since his 2016 season in Seattle. Cruz’s 2019 stats seem to be nothing out of the norm for what we have come to expect from such an established power hitter. Many people do not realize he is by far the oldest player on this list (obviously excluding Ichiro) at 39 years old. The manager of the Twins, Rocco Baldelli, is 38 years old. As such, Cruz serves as a role model in the Minneapolis clubhouse just as much as he does a menacing power hitter. The Twins recently picked up his option for the 2020 season, and they will welcome him back with open arms as he becomes a quadragenarian.