Justin Verlander, facing Tommy John surgery at 37, will attempt to do the impossible
The final act of Justin Verlander's marvelous career has arguably been his finest. Over the past few seasons, after seemingly settling into his decline phase following a brilliant peak in Detroit, the veteran right-hander looked born anew with the Houston Astros, recapturing lost velocity and re-establishing himself as a bona fide ace. As recently as last summer, it seemed like Verlander could pitch well into his 40s and ultimately cement himself in the coming years as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Suddenly, though, his future is in jeopardy. Verlander, who made one start in 2020 before landing on the injured list with what was described as a forearm strain, announced Saturday he needs Tommy John surgery to repair the damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
To his credit, Verlander, who is almost guaranteed to miss the entire 2021 season, was unfazed, saying he "will not let this slow down my aspirations for my career."
Still, his resolve notwithstanding, the task ahead is a daunting one. Verlander turned 37 in February. The history of pitchers his age or older having their UCL's surgically repaired is overwhelmingly bleak. While the eight-time All-Star may be able to will his way back to the majors at 39, it's likely, in the event he does return, Verlander won't ever be the same again.
In the nearly five decades since Dr. Frank Jobe revitalized veteran left-hander Tommy John's career with the experimental ligament-reconstruction procedure, almost 2,000 professional ballplayers have had it done, according to analyst Jon Roegele, with the vast majority being pitchers. From that group of nearly 2,000, only 10 had the surgery after turning 37, or less than 1%. That's a minuscule fraction that hints at the improbability of returning healthy and still being effective after undergoing such a major procedure at such an advanced age.
|Player||Age||Surgery date||MLB return date||Recovery time in months|
|Chris Coste (C)||37||5/25/2010||-||-|
On the one hand, every pitcher who underwent Tommy John surgery at age 37 or older - all of whom were well-established big leaguers - eventually made it back to the majors, with half of them returning to the mound within the typical 12-14 month recovery timeline or faster. Most of those pitchers, however, were relievers at that point in their careers. While several of them enjoyed some success pitching in relief after returning, neither of the two starting pitchers who underwent Tommy John surgery at age 37 or older were effective starters again.
Bronson Arroyo, the colorful junkballer whose recovery took almost three years due to multiple setbacks, was so ineffective, at age 40, he lasted only a half-season. He stumbled to a 7.35 ERA in 14 starts for the Cincinnati Reds in 2017 before getting released. Arroyo didn't pitch in the big leagues again. Jamie Moyer, the left-hander renowned for his mind-boggling longevity, managed a 5.70 ERA in 10 starts with the Colorado Rockies in 2012 following his surgery and similarly earned an early-summer release. He didn't pitch in the bigs again, either.
Neither of those pitchers, of course, were Verlander. He was one of the game's most dominant starters as recently as 2019 when he authored a 2.58 ERA (179 ERA+) over 34 starts for the Astros while leading the majors in WHIP (0.80) and innings pitched (223) and setting a career high in strikeouts (300) en route to his second Cy Young award. In the game's history, few starters have ever been as exceptional as Verlander through their early-to-mid 30s: only 10 pitchers racked up more WAR from ages 33 through 36 than Verlander, who was traded to Houston late in 2017. If Verlander were to return to the big leagues in 2022 and be even close to as dominant as he was before surgery, it would be unprecedented. Frankly, it would be unprecedented if he was even good enough to hang around for a second season as a starter, post-surgery. In committing to this comeback, Verlander is, in a sense, attempting the impossible.
"I will approach this rehab the only way I know: attack and don’t look back," Verlander said. "I'm confident that with a proper rehabilitation program and my unwavering commitment that this surgery will ultimately lengthen my career as opposed to shortening it."
Surely, someone will give him a chance to start come 2022, barring a setback in his recovery. His current contract with the Astros expires after next season, but finding a job two springs from now will be the easy part for Verlander, whose pedigree and experience will attract a bevy of suitors.
The hard part, if history is any indication, will be keeping that job. While Verlander has been consistently exceptional throughout his 16-year career, never before has it been such an existential imperative.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.
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