Nothing was ever going to dismantle Justin Verlander's reputation as a future Hall of Famer in 2022. Even if he came out and flopped harder than he ever had before, it would have been understandable and eminently forgivable under the circumstances.
It only makes it that much sweeter that he's doing the improbable of actually adding to his resume for Cooperstown.
The Houston Astros ace is thriving through his first eight starts of the season, as he's tied for second among pitchers with 2.2 rWAR while also leading everyone with a 1.22 ERA. He stands to push the latter even lower if he can make it four straight scoreless outings tonight against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park.
Whether or not Verlander would even pitch at all this season was a good question after he underwent Tommy John surgery in October 2020. That always figured to sideline him for the entire 2021 campaign, which was also his last under contract with the Astros. Meanwhile, his 39th birthday loomed on Feb. 20 of this year.
If Verlander had opted to hang up his spikes in lieu of attempting a comeback, he would have walked away without a single thing to prove. As of the close of the 2020 season, his credentials included:
- AL Rookie of the Year in 2006
- AL Cy Young Award in 2011 and 2019
- AL MVP in 2011
- World Series champion in 2017
- All-Star in 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2018 and 2019
- No-hitters 2007, 2011 and 2019
- 3,013 career strikeouts
- The most rWAR of any pitcher in the 21st century
That's a Hall of Fame resume if there ever was one. Heck, they could have started drafting Verlander's plaque as soon as the anesthesia for his Tommy John surgery kicked in.
It's a good thing they didn't, though. At the rate he's going, Verlander's long list of accomplishments could also come to include another Cy Young Award after perhaps the most unlikely Tommy John comeback in the history of Major League Baseball.
The Chips Couldn't Have Been More Stacked Against Verlander
Even sans the context of his Tommy John surgery, there wouldn't have been many assurances that Verlander would be his typical ace-like self in 2022.
Before making one start in his age-37 season in 2020 and then missing all of his age-38 season in 2021, Verlander averaged a 2.87 ERA, 218 innings and 7.0 rWAR between the ages of 33 and 36 across 2016 and 2019.
The latter is a mark that only three pitchers have ever reached in their age-39 seasons and none since Phil Niekro in 1978. You have to go back to Mike Mussina in 2008 to find the last time a 39-year-old pitcher racked up so much as 4.0 rWAR.
As for the Tommy John factor, the precedent there was even less encouraging.
Though a great many pitchers have had the surgery and quite a few—Adam Wainwright, Stephen Strasburg, Tim Hudson and, of course, Tommy John spring to mind—have come back strong from it, the history is sketchier on both accounts with regards to older pitchers like Verlander.
What's more, only Jamie Moyer and Bronson Arroyo made as many as 10 starts in their first years back after Tommy John surgery. Neither made the most of it, as a 49-year-old Moyer posted 0.1 rWAR in 10 starts for the Colorado Rockies in 2012 and a 40-year-old Arroyo got rocked for minus-1.5 rWAR in 14 starts for the Cincinnati Reds in 2017.
On top of all this, Verlander would be returning to an environment quite unlike the one he left in 2020. As every active pitcher was forced to after MLB cracked down in June 2021, he would have to adapt to pitching without the benefit of grip-enhancing—and, by extension, spin-enhancing—sticky stuff.
Now, we can't prove that Spider Tack or any other kind of sticky stuff was part of Verlander's success prior to Tommy John. But at least one person alleges that to have been the case, and Verlander's spin rates don't deflect suspicion in retrospect. In 2019, for example, only Sonny Gray had a higher average spin rate.
Knowing all this, it was fair to wonder at the outset of this season if Verlander's comeback was doomed to fail. Or, at the least, doomed to be forgettable.
Still the Same 'Ol Verlander, Except Also Slightly Different
In actuality, Verlander's 2022 season doesn't look any kind of doomed to this point. If anything, he's looked like the same pitcher he was before he had Tommy John.
For the most part, anyway. If there's a notable difference, it's that the average spin on his three primary offerings (four-seamer, slider and curveball) is down from previous seasons:
Can these declines be traced back to the crackdown on sticky stuff? Maybe. Sans any concrete evidence, we'll leave it at that.
Besides, Verlander's diminished spin isn't hurting him in any tangible way. To wit, his fastball is still electric:
Despite its diminished spin, Verlander's heater otherwise isn't showing any signs of decline. At 94.7 mph, its average velocity is the same as it was in 2019. It's also holding opposing hitters to a .146 average, the lowest such mark for the pitch since the pitch-tracking era began in 2008.
Verlander's fastball is faring even better when he pitches up with it. That's something he's doing more aggressively this year, with its average height of 3.01 feet off the ground ranking as the highest of his career. And against fastballs from Verlander that are more than three feet high, batters are just 3-for-32 for the season.
Meanwhile, his slider is also still looking good:
And his curveball remains a hammer:
Given what's going on with his fastball, you might expect these two pitches to also have the same velocity as they did in 2019. Not so, as each has actually lost velo since then:
- Fastball: No change
- Slider: Minus-0.6 mph
- Curveball: Minus-1.3 mph
Rather than a bad thing, this might be a "less is more" situation. In theory, a greater velocity differential between his fastball, slider and curve gives Verlander greater leeway to keep hitters off-balance by changing speeds.
A telling data point is the rate at which hitters are pulling the ball—i.e., taking the best possible route to home runs and SLG—against Verlander. Those account for just 30.7 percent of all batted balls off him, well below the 40.8 percent that hitters mustered in 2019.
To summarize: He may not have the same stuff, but he's doing what he must to get more out of the stuff he has.
Can He Keep This Up, Though?
And now for the part where we look for reasons to doubt Verlander, which frankly doesn't require a microscope.
Though he's had impeccable command in walking only nine batters all year, it's likewise noticeable that his strikeout rate is at just 26.3 percent. A decent rate by any reasonable measure, but well south of the 35.4 percent clip at which he whiffed batters en route to 300 strikeouts in 2019.
He's therefore relying on his defense a lot more than he was in his last full season, and the success of this approach is suspect. Balls in play off him are going for a .197 average. However unusual you think that is, trust us when we say it's even more unusual. As of now, that's the lowest such mark on record for an ERA-title qualifier.
What makes that even more suspicious is how Verlander's 37.8 hard-hit percentage is higher than his career norm of 33.1. So when it comes down to it, Statcast is onto something in calculating that his ERA should be higher than 1.22—as in, more than twice as high at 2.58.
But are we picking nits? You bet.
For one thing, that 2.58 xERA is still the sixth-best mark among pitchers who've had 100 balls put in play this season. So even if Verlander gradually regresses to where his ERA theoretically belongs, he should still be in elite territory.
For another, if ever Verlander was going to try to get by with a lower strikeout rate, this is the year to do it.
It's not just because the ball is dead, though that's certainly a factor. There's also the quality of the defense behind Verlander. The Astros' defense is tied for fifth in defensive efficiency, and it's anchored by an outfield that's running away with the major league lead with 16 defensive runs saved.
That outfield is especially beneficial to Verlander, who's about where he usually is in inducing ground balls on only 38.9 percent of his balls in play. Of the 33 fly balls off him that didn't clear the fence for a home run, only one has gone for a hit—hopefully, he treated Chas McCormick to something nice for this catch.
Because the way he's going about his business appears more or less sustainable, perhaps the only question left is whether Verlander will make it through the season unscathed. What bodes well is how Astros manager Dusty Baker is handling the veteran right-hander, allowing him to cross the century mark with his pitch count in just two of his eight starts.
"We take that into consideration because we want him for the [full season]," Baker told reporters after lifting Verlander after he had thrown 95 pitches over six innings against the Texas Rangers on May 21.
If so, neither Verlander nor the Astros need to change a thing. When it comes time to tell the story of it all, the tale could be that of the ultimate Tommy John comeback.