Updated: Dec 3, 2021
Like I’m sure many of you were, I was surprised and excited when the Astros resigned Justin Verlander on Wednesday. Of course this deal also comes with some inherent risks. Verlander is 38 years old and basically hasn’t pitched in 2 years. JV had Tommy John surgery on September 30th, 2020 and has been diligently rehabbing ever since. Many Astro fans were frustrated that it seemed like Verlander made no effort to return to game action this year. In this article I’ll try to explain why he made that decision and what we can expect from Verlander in 2022 and beyond.
First let’s look at why Justin Verlander did not push to try and pitch this season for the Astros. Justin originally picked up a forearm strain after his first start of the COVID shortened season on July 24th, 2020. Because Verlander is a big team guy and wanted to contribute in 2020 his shut down throwing and rehabbed hard. He said on Instagram that in the middle of September he threw a simulated game (usually the last step in rehab before the real thing) and felt more pain in his elbow. (Remember from the LMJ article I said forearm strains and TJ kinda go together? Yeah.) Justin had UCL reconstruction surgery on September 30th, performed by Dr. Keith Meister (Same guy that operated on Jake Meyers). Because Dr. Meister puts his rehab protocol on his website, we can have a pretty good idea of when JV hit certain landmarks on rehab. The absolute earliest he could have started a throwing program was February 17th, 2021. However we know from Justin’s social media his first throwing session was on March 17th, 2021. There may have also been some setbacks in rehab or other circumstances. This is extremely common. Almost no rehab is going to follow exactly to the protocol. Every arm is different and is going to react to surgery and rehab differently. His first flat ground was around June 16th. His first bullpen was probably in late July or early August. The first time JV likely threw a breaking ball was in late August. His first time throwing to live hitters after surgery was likely late September/early October. JV wasn’t going from throwing to live hitters for the first time the first week in October to pitching in a playoff game two weeks later. This is a completely unrealistic expectation. When JV spent 2 months rehabbing to come back for the 2020 season, any hope of him pitching in 2021 was gone. If you find yourself criticizing Verlander for this, the problem is you. Justin obviously loves pitching in Houston. He even gave a reason why he was not around the team for the stretch run
Any rehab from a surgery is WORK. You don’t sit on your couch for a year and then magically throw 95-96 like it has been reported that JV did in his bullpen session in front of teams. A baseball team is beat up after 162 games and the training/strength staff needs to be devoted to the guys on the lineup card. There is staff in West Palm Beach all year round doing rehab on guys on the IL, that’s their main function. JV also did a large chunk of his rehab at Cressey Sports Performance in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Eric Cressey, who owns and runs the facility, is one of the most respected baseball minds in the country. It is highly likely that one of your favorite pitchers spends some of his winter getting better there. (Also it’s 15 minutes away from the Astros spring training facility in West Palm Beach). So no JV was never coming back in 2021. But the good news is he’s BACK for 2022!
So what should our expectations be Justin Verlander in 2022? Because of how long he will be out of surgery by opening day 2022 and where he is at in his career, I expect JV to have a close to normal season in 2022. Verlander will be almost exactly 18 months out from surgery on Opening Day 2022. While normal Tommy John rehab take around 12-15 months, it really takes 16+ to really feel back to normal. JV has all winter to get a feel back for his pitches, especially the breaking ball. Because in TJ protocols you start throwing breakers so late, those are the last pitches to come back. Giving him extra months to feel that slider and curveball (shout out Todd Frazier) will be huge for him. I also do not think there will be an innings limit for JV. This is for 3 reasons: Again having a longer time to rehab fully from surgery, he’s 38, and we are not really sure innings limitations even work. 18 months is a really good timeline to return from this injury! It gives him so much extra time, and the tissue in his elbow even more time to fully heal and integrate with his body. In a UCL reconstruction we take tendon and turn it into ligament. It takes a long time for that tendon to behave fully like a ligament, so more time is always helpful. JV is 38, and while he says he wants to pitch until he’s 45, he’s almost playing with house money at this point. Another elbow injury would probably be a career ender yes, but by the end 2022 he will have made over $300 million in career earnings! He’s already a Hall of Famer. This isn’t the same situation of Lance McCullers Jr. who has most of his career ahead of him. And finally there is conflicting research on the efficacy of inning limitations. Should We Limit Innings Pitched After Ulnar Collateral Ligament Reconstruction in Major League Baseball Pitchers? by Erickson, et al found there was not a significant difference in innings and pitch count for those that required revision UCL surgery vs. those that did not. On the contrary in Relative individual workload changes may be a risk factor for re-rupture of ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction. by Keller, et al found that those who required a second Tommy John surgery pitched 14.1% more innings and 6.6% more pitches when compared to their workloads before the first Tommy John surgery. So with conflicting research about inning limits, what will the Astros do? I don't think that there will be a limit, but more of a monitoring. JV has been almost a lock for 200 innings in his career. I think that might be in the upper reaches of what to expect this year. I would guess that number will be closer to 180. He definitely will not go 14.1% over his career average of 213. This would put him at over 240 innings, a number he hasn't eclipsed since his MVP year in 2011. This process to slightly lower his innings may be as simple as Dusty pulling him after 6 innings instead of 7 a few times a year, similar to what the Astros did with Luis Garcia at the end of 2021. But they also didn't pay him $25 million to pitch 100 innings or come out the pen. This is our ace.
As both a fan and an AT I am ECSTATIC that the Astros brought Verlander back. Getting an ace for 180 innings this year at the top of the rotation is exactly what the Astros needed. He provides a veteran presence to a young rotation. I think he made the right move for himself and the Astros by being all in for 2022.
To see how Verlander fits into the LarryTheGM master plan for the Astros read this.
Check out the previous JoshuaTheAT breakdowns on:
Remember my disclaimer: This is all speculation. I can give my opinion on a situation but there are times I will be dead wrong. Evaluating an athlete in front of you can be difficult at times, so doing it from in front of a screen is next to impossible. But I think I can give you an informed opinion/a rough estimation of what to expect regarding severity and recovery time for a given injury. Again: I AM NOT A DOCTOR. I WILL BE WRONG. When I get something wrong I will be the first person to admit it.