From Tommy John to Cy Young form at 39? Inside Justin Verlander’s unprecedented return to dominance

From Tommy John to Cy Young form at 39? Inside Justin Verlander’s unprecedented return to dominance post thumbnail image

LAST SEPTEMBER, WITH the one-year anniversary of his Tommy John surgery approaching, Justin Verlander wanted to pitch. Even though his rehabilitation wasn’t complete, even though the tendon used to tie together the bones of his elbow still hadn’t morphed into a ligament, Verlander reached out to Houston Astros brass with an idea: He could throw an inning and see how things go.

The Astros were noncommittal. They had survived the season without him and eventually would go on to the World Series. The surgeon who performed the procedure, Dr. Keith Meister, was far more definitive, Verlander said. If Verlander wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, sure, he could go for it. If he preferred to keep pitching for years to come, he’d be an idiot to try.

“Everybody around me,” Verlander said, “was like, hey, big fella, appreciate the trying, but don’t be the stupid dog.”

Now 39, Verlander understands his limitations. He obsesses over baseball — its details, rhythms, intricacies, all the way down to the laces on the ball — and the first arm surgery of his long career stole from him the day-to-day involvement in the game.

“Didn’t watch a single baseball game for a long time,” he said. “I couldn’t. Why put a carrot in front of a horse? It’s like the dogs that like to run and they’re trained to chase that f—ing rabbit. If I’m one of those dogs and I’ve got a hurt leg, I’m not gonna f—ing open a gate and put the rabbit right there. What am I gonna do? I’m gonna f—ing run.”

Verlander was coming off a Cy Young Award-winning season in 2019, still in the prime of his career at a time when most are long done, ready to pitch well into his 40s. With his elbow blown out, with the only remedy being reconstructive surgery, with hundreds of millions of dollars earned, he asked himself: Is it worth spending the next 18 months trying to play baseball again?

When he decided it was, Verlander understood what it meant. To make his elbow whole again, and to make his career what he wanted it to be, he needed to do something that went against not only his instincts but the fabric of the life he’d made for himself over the previous decade and a half.

Forget about the game altogether.


TODAY, VERLANDER WEARS a scar on his elbow that serves as a daily reminder that what he’s doing — looking like one of the best pitchers in the world, again — is unprecedented. Only one starter, the anomalous Jamie Moyer, returned from Tommy John at an older age — and his fastball rarely licked 80 mph. Verlander is throwing 95, unfurling his curveball, burying sliders, turning over changeups, all to great effect. His ERA is 1.94. He can add to his Major League Baseball-leading win total Saturday, when he’ll pitch against the Chicago White Sox. Nobody would bat an eye if he started the All-Star Game.

He’s sitting in the Astros’ clubhouse, relaxed and ebullient, the gray creeping upward from his temples but still framing a face that’s as youthful as the one that burst on the scene barely a year after he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers. Over the next 15 years, Verlander carved a legendary path, the workhorse of his generation. His renaissance in Houston didn’t just end with the 2017 World Series championship besmirched by the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. He was as good as ever in 2018 and 2019, too, and looked primed for a return engagement until his arm said otherwise.

After his first start in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, pain shot through Verlander’s elbow. He spent two months shelved, his ulnar collateral ligament frayed, hopeful rest would allow it to heal. On Sept. 16, 2020, he returned to throw a simulated game at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. The radar gun told him his fastball was missing the fast — 89, 90, 91 mph, well off the 95, 96, 97 his arm typically produced. Verlander figured fear was restricting him, so he kept repeating to himself: “Stop being scared.”

He came out for the second inning and told himself to throw the ball as hard as he could. He looked at the gun reading: 89. Fine, he thought. Try a curveball. It was the pitch that caused the pain in the first place. Verlander ripped one, and it felt like the bones in his elbow banged into one another. He cut the game short. He knew surgery beckoned. And with it would come his withdrawal.

“I was like, man, I need to step away,” Verlander said. “I’ve been playing this game for so long. Let’s look at a silver lining. Here’s my beautiful daughter, my beautiful family.”

Verlander paused. He dabbed at his right eye.

“I’m gonna tear up,” he said.

These days, Verlander talks a lot about his family — his wife, Kate Upton, and their daughter, 3-year-old Genevieve, who they call Vivi. All the time he had spent on the road, immersed in the game, self-focused, faded away first during the early stages of the pandemic and even more so after his surgery. He didn’t have to steal glimpses of his baby girl on FaceTime. He was actually there with her.

There were moments of frustration certainly. Early in the rehab process, when his leg was still balky after Meister used a hamstring tendon to serve as Verlander’s right UCL, he kept tripping over the plug-in cord for his Tesla and using his arm to brace himself from falling. Verlander had learned the value of patience after the 2014 core-muscle surgery that saved his career, helping him to regain the form of his mid-20s, when he evolved from flamethrower to dominator. And yet the strict nature of the Tommy John protocol tested his willingness to wait.

By the time the 2021 season began, Verlander was six months removed from his Sept. 30 surgery. He was just beginning to throw. But this wasn’t baseball. It was a process, a means to an end, filled not with the excitement and adrenaline and energy of a ballgame but the doldrums and repetitiveness and boredom of a long and arduous rehabilitation.

His return in 2021 a nonstarter, Verlander began watching games again during the playoffs and lived vicariously through the Astros’ run to the World Series, which they lost to Atlanta. The day after the season ended, Verlander hit free agency for the first time in his career. Houston tagged him with the qualifying offer, and he decided to sign within the next 10 days.

“Houston was at the top of the list,” Verlander said. “As negotiations started going, they kind of fell off. Some other teams really started to show a lot of interest. I would say that the leader was probably Toronto. They were great. And I talked to George (Springer, his former Astros teammate now with the Blue Jays) a bunch. They were very proactive to the point that when I signed with Houston, I made sure to let them know that I appreciated it all. Ultimately, when it came down to it, Houston had the same offer. It was all kind of ballpark between them and Toronto, and New York (Yankees) was kind of always just a step behind.”

Despite Verlander pitching in just one game over the previous two seasons, the Astros gave him a one-year, $25 million contract with a player option for $25 million if he reaches 130 innings this season. He’s more than halfway there already, logging 78.2 innings over a dozen starts, allowing the fewest baserunners per inning of every pitcher in MLB and carving through lineups as if time had jumped from 2019 to today.

“I still feel like I’m rehabbing,” Verlander said. “They’ve babied me. Rightfully so. It’s necessary. My first four starts, it was not easy to bounce back. My elbow was killing me. Just got really sore and tight and, you know, you can’t replicate game speed. All of a sudden, big league game, big spots, I’m throwing a lot more off-speed with a lot more intent. Every bump in the road, the entire way, my elbow had a reaction. And it’s totally normal. It’s just how I’ve treated my body my entire career. If you want to do something, you gotta make it do it. It either can or can’t.”


WITH VERLANDER, THE answer is always: It can. The Hall of Fame career. The World Series ring. The Cy Young Awards. The no-hitters. The supermodel wife. The sweet baby girl. The fame. The glory. After a life of getting it, why would he believe any differently?

“Self-assurance,” Verlander said, “has never been my downfall.”

However many more years Verlander is able to continue pitching, he recognizes that his time in the game is nearing its end, and he hopes to leave it in a better place. Understanding that the pace needs to quicken, he’s fine with the pitch clock that’s likely to arrive in the big leagues next year. Aware of the negative effect the Astros’ sign-stealing had on the game, he has embraced one of the rejoinders against it: PitchCom, the gizmo that allows catchers to call pitches electronically and for the sign to be relayed through a transmitter in pitchers’ hats.

“I get this stigma of being this old crusty guy, can’t change,” he said. “Look at me. I’m using f—ing PitchCom now.”

At the All-Star Game three years ago, in the midst of a record-setting home run season, he accused MLB of juicing the baseball to increase offense. The league studied the ball that offseason and confirmed that it was flying farther but said it was unintentional.

“Nobody believed me. I was a conspiracy theorist,” Verlander said. “They’re working on it now. I actually like the ball that we started the season with, but I think they’re already going back to the other one. I think you’ll see home run rates start jumping up pretty quick — substantially — soon. I think they’re sprinkling them in already … “

“It’s happening already,” Astros reliever Ryne Stanek, overhearing Verlander, said.

“Yes,” Verlander concurred. “It’s happening already. I’ve been saying this from the beginning. I like the ball that we started the season with. Not for the reasons that everybody is gonna think.”

Home run rates were down significantly over the first month of the season. They jumped in May and have increased again in June, though they’re still well shy of the numbers put up in recent years.

“The reason I like the other ball is because the drag on the ball was significantly decreasing opposite-field home runs,” Verlander said. “My entire career growing up, I probably saw 10 guys who were gifted and could backspin a ball opposite field. I was blessed to see Miguel (Cabrera) do it for a decade in Detroit. You talk about Albert Pujols, Jim Thome, J.D. Martinez….It’s a gift. That’s what made them so great.

“Then eight out of nine guys in the lineup started to be able to go backside because the drag on the ball was reduced. I thought that more drag induced, less opposite-field home runs would eventually lead to a shift in baseball where guys that didn’t have that natural gift would start refocusing on two-strike approach, putting the ball in play more, doing little things, getting guys over — the little things that make baseball great and a constant ebb and flow of the game instead of the three true outcomes.

“I was optimistic that if we were able to stay with that ball, the game was already adapting to see more of the action that I think is a better product.”

Verlander has thrived by adapting to baseball’s changes, and this season his perspective on the game’s place in his life has evolved as well. In the middle of a bid for his fourth no-hitter earlier this year against Minnesota, he found himself appreciating the moment. Vivi was watching, and he was doing something potentially historic, and if it happened, that was great, and if it didn’t, that was just fine. He was pitching again, and she was old enough to understand — and that was plenty.

It’s what makes the first third of the season fulfilling, sure, but not satisfying. The Astros lead the American League West again. They’ve got a championship-caliber roster, especially with him fronting the rotation. And Verlander wants to ensure his successful return isn’t short-lived.

“I can’t sit here and baby it all year long and then all of a sudden we find ourselves in the playoffs and it’s like, all right, crack the whip,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. Hopefully it just keeps reacting the way it has been.”

He’ll know come August and September, when the innings accrue and he tries to ramp up from zero to who-knows-how-many innings. He only hopes when the rabbit starts running, he’s ready to chase it.



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