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Neither Age Nor Surgery Can Stop Justin Verlander

After undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing most of two seasons, the 39-year-old Astros ace looks like a Cy Young favorite again

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Justin Verlander didn’t need to pitch well—or at all—in 2022 to cement his legacy. With three no-hitters, two Cy Young awards, and one MVP trophy on his résumé, Verlander was already a sure Hall of Famer and one of the best pitchers of his generation.

He could have been forgiven for taking it easy this year. Sure, Verlander’s said he wants to pitch until he’s 45 years old—but he entered this season, at age 39, having appeared in just one game since winning the Cy Young in 2019, and he was attempting to make an unprecedented return from Tommy John surgery.

Yet Verlander has veered in the opposite direction. He hasn’t just bounced back from his surgery, and he isn’t just succeeding at a routine level—he’s the American League’s Cy Young favorite, with a league-best 15-3 record and 1.73 ERA.

Verlander required almost no adjustment period at the start of the season, even after 18 months away from an MLB mound. In his second start, he tossed eight shutout innings against the Mariners; a month later, he repeated that feat, while allowing just one hit, against the Twins.

Behind the scenes, Verlander said, the process wasn’t so smooth. “They’ve babied me. Rightfully so. It’s necessary,” he told ESPN’s Jeff Passan in June. “My first four starts, it was not easy to bounce back. My elbow was killing me.”

But that pain hasn’t translated to an inferior performance on the mound: Compared to his previous seasons in Houston, Verlander hasn’t lost any of his trademark fastball velocity, and he once again rates among the sport’s most durable pitchers, able to give the Astros length that most starters in the 2020s cannot. He’s no Sandy Alcantara, but Verlander is averaging 6.5 innings per start, tied for third most in the majors and right in line with his own rates from before his surgery.

At 130 total innings, Verlander has also, with nearly two months to play, already reached the vesting threshold that activates his player option for 2023. Now he can stay with Houston next season for another $25 million—but the way he’s pitching, he might rather opt out and fetch another more lucrative, longer-term deal that would carry him deeper into his 40s.

Given Verlander’s age, his performance and longevity after recovering from Tommy John surgery is unprecedented. According to Jon Roegele’s TJ database, only nine previous pitchers had undergone the procedure at 37 or older and then returned to the majors. And reliever Arthur Rhodes was the only member of that group who lasted at least 100 innings, or produced at least 1 bWAR, afterward.

Oldest Pitchers After Tommy John Surgery

Player Age at Surgery IP WAR
Player Age at Surgery IP WAR
Arthur Rhodes 37 176.7 4.6
Justin Verlander 37 130 4.1
Joe Nathan 40 6.3 0.5
John Franco 41 95.3 0.3
Jamie Moyer 47 53.7 0.1
José Contreras 40 5 -0.3
Rafael Betancourt 38 39.3 -0.6
Gary Lavelle 37 32 -0.6
Mike Fetters 38 18.7 -0.9
Bronson Arroyo 37 71 -1.5

On average, pitchers who underwent TJ at 37 or older and then returned to the majors threw just 55 more innings and accumulated 0.2 bWAR; expand the analysis to pitchers 35 and older, and those averages tick up only to 75 innings and 0.6 bWAR.

From analysis of Roegele’s dataset, the previous oldest pitcher to bounce back from TJ as a successful starter appears to be John Tudor, who had surgery at 34, posted a 2.40 ERA in 25 games (22 starts) for the 1990 Cardinals at age 36, and then retired because of mounting injuries.

Tudor is maybe the best precedent for Verlander—and he was three years younger, with presumably less longevity upon returning. After that, the best comp might be John Smoltz, who became an All-Star starter half a decade after his surgery—but he went under the knife at 33, four years younger than Verlander, then transitioned into a closer role for years before returning to the rotation.

To be fair, Verlander’s not quite the same dominant pitcher he was before his injury: His strikeout rate this season is down to 25.5 percent, which is his worst mark in Houston and 10 ticks below his 2019 figure. And he’s benefitted from the third-lowest BABIP allowed among qualified pitchers this season, at just .229, which is much lower than his expected BABIP based on batted-ball data. (Verlander also led the majors with a .218 BABIP allowed in his last full season.)

But those quibbles haven’t shown up in his run-prevention stats, as Verlander leads a trio of qualified starters—along with Alcantara and Dylan Cease, the only AL pitcher whose bWAR rivals Verlander’s—with an ERA below 2. If they sustain that pace, they’d be the first trio in a non-shortened season since a quartet of qualifiers finished under 2.00 in 1972—the year before the introduction of the designated hitter.

(One underrated factor that’s helped this trio lower its earned run average is that the three pitchers have allowed many more unearned runs than expected. The average qualified starter this season has allowed 3.7 unearned runs, but Alcantara has allowed seven unearned runs, Verlander eight, and Cease 10.)

Because even Verlander’s innings total this season won’t approach, say, what Randy Johnson could accomplish in 2004 or Phil Niekro in 1978, he won’t post the most valuable season ever for a pitcher his age. But at the moment, his 1.73 ERA is the second best in MLB history for a qualified pitcher his age, behind only Cy Young’s 1.26 ERA in 1908. Roger Clemens (1.87 ERA in 2005) is the only pitcher in the modern era who comes close.

Add in Verlander’s MLB-leading 15 wins, and he is the clear Cy Young favorite unless he falters down the stretch. Ironically, after losing a close race to Blake Snell in 2018 because the Rays lefty had a superior record and ERA but worse peripheral stats, Verlander could benefit from those same factors in a race against the Blue Jays’ Kevin Gausman—who leads in fWAR with the majors’ best peripherals, but suffers from a mere 8-8 record and 2.91 ERA—this season.

Verlander is due some luck in a Cy Young race, after numerous close losses throughout his career. In 2012, he received 13 first-place votes, while David Price nabbed 14. In 2018, he received 13 first-place votes to Snell’s 17. And in 2016, most egregiously of all, he earned 14 first-place votes—but Rick Porcello, who grabbed eight firsts, gained enough ground on the ballots that placed neither pitcher first that he won the award anyway. However, Verlander led all three rivals in fWAR and both Price and Porcello in bWAR.

While pitcher wins aren’t really a marker of performance, they can still influence awards—as all three of those tight Cy Young losses demonstrated. In the seasons they won, Price went 20-5, Snell 21-5, and Porcello 22-4, while Verlander won 17, 16, and 16 games, respectively. In fact, Verlander’s two Cy Young victories to date coincide with the two seasons he’s won 20 games, in 2011 and 2019. Barring injury, he should have another 10 or 11 starts (beginning with Wednesday’s game against the Rangers) to accumulate the five more wins he needs to reach 20 this season—and to get a few steps closer to his ultimate goal of 300, even if at 241 he’s still another three or four good years away.

In the more immediate term, if he fulfills his favorite status to win his third Cy Young award, Verlander will join contemporaries Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer with that number. That would be a fitting result, as all three pitchers continue to battle for “best of the generation” status.

Their longevity is remarkable: All three are more often injured than they were a decade ago, but if anything, they’re pitching even more effectively with age. Verlander, Scherzer, and Kershaw have combined for a 2.05 ERA in 311 innings this season. That’s the best combined ERA for the trio in any season, by a huge margin. (The previous best was 2.58, in 2018.) And for those who care about wins and losses, the trio is 30-8 this season, which makes for its best-ever combined winning percentage.

As the oldest member of this illustrious trio, with the most recent extreme injury, Verlander might expect to wrap his career, and his case as the best of the generation, first. But this season’s encore demonstrates he still has plenty more career—and awards, and wins—to go.