Sports

Justin Verlander Is Nowhere Near Done

JUPITER, Fla. — Last to work 250 innings, next to earn 300 wins. That would be a fitting shorthand for the career of Justin Verlander, who has no plans to slow down any time soon.

Verlander took the mound for the Houston Astros in Jupiter, Fla., on Friday in his first competitive start since opening day in July 2020. In two innings, he faced seven everyday players for the St. Louis Cardinals, striking out two and allowing one walk. The Cardinals never got the ball out of the infield, and Verlander toyed with their best hitters — a slider to Paul Goldschmidt, a curve to Nolan Arenado. His fastball touched 97 miles an hour.

“There’s a lot of positives to build on here,” Verlander said in the clubhouse later. “Not as sharp as I would like, but I think that’s being pretty nitpicky.”

Verlander has his standards. The pandemic and Tommy John surgery wiped nearly two seasons from a Hall of Fame résumé that includes 226 victories, most among active pitchers. Yet Verlander, at 39, still believes he can reach 300 victories — and doubts anyone will ever again match his workload from 2011, when he logged 251 innings for Detroit on his way to the American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards.

“I was an aberration, I felt like, because I threw 100 and I was sustainable,” he said, referring to his top velocity. “The problem is you’re getting all these kids now who are getting taught how to throw hard at a young age, and they’re just not able to sustain that long term. So you have to monitor their workload significantly; otherwise, they’re going to get hurt. So it’s more out of necessity than anything else.”

Verlander returned to Houston on a one-year, $25 million deal that can become a two-year deal if he reaches 130 innings.Credit…Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press

Analytics play a role too, Verlander said, with statistics that encourage managers to pull starters after two turns through the lineup. But the data revolution also has its benefits — modern starters take fewer turns per season than old-timers did, but might be able to last longer in their careers.

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And make no mistake: Verlander wants to last longer. He re-signed with the Astros for one year and $25 million, plus a $25 million player option if he works 130 innings. The path to 300 wins — a mark last reached in 2009, by Randy Johnson — is in front of him.

“Can I do that? Yeah,” he said, matter-of-factly.

And why would he want to, after all he has accomplished?

“I mean, that’s just who I am,” said Verlander, who has a young daughter with his wife, the supermodel Kate Upton. “The fire’s still burning. I’ve got too much stuff going on at home now, with a daughter and family, and if I didn’t still have that fire, I wouldn’t play. But I think advances in medicine will help and can help — the ability to really dive in body mechanics and recovery. The ability to receive data now is different than it used to be, and I think you can use that to your advantage.”

Astros Manager Dusty Baker played with John, who pitched to age 46 and made 700 career starts, most of them coming after his landmark elbow operation in 1974. Baker played against others who lasted until their mid-40s, like Jim Kaat and Nolan Ryan, and said Verlander could absolutely win 300.

“Yeah, he can do it, as long as he can keep the desire, because he’s got a new arm,” Baker said. “Take money out of it — he loves to play. And when you get a new arm, it’s like getting a new engine in your car. Yeah, your car’s old, but your engine’s young.”

Three power pitchers in Verlander’s lifetime have earned 74 victories from their age-39 seasons onward, as Verlander must do to reach 300: Ryan (83 wins), Johnson (79) and Roger Clemens (74). Even more encouraging, to Verlander, is how he has pitched lately.

Verlander, 39, has little left to prove after winning 226 games and two Cy Young Awards.Credit…Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle, via Associated Press

He had the majors’ lowest WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) in both 2018 and 2019, with 590 strikeouts and just 79 walks across those seasons. But he had gradually gotten too upright in his delivery, and needed groin surgery in March 2020.

Verlander studied his mechanics during the Covid shutdown, deciding that a lower release point would help his longevity. Maybe that led to the elbow trouble, Verlander conceded, but he had a purpose. He always does.

“I don’t regret some of the decisions I made in 2020, because all the decisions I make are to make me be sustainably great and be at the top of my game,” he said. “It would have been a very different story had I labored on through a couple of seasons, my elbow doesn’t feel good, my performance goes down, my velocity goes down, I get hit around, then all of a sudden you have Tommy John at 39 or 40.

“To come back in a couple of years after that, it’s like, what are we doing here? Instead, it’s: ‘Let’s have surgery — and there’s no reason I can’t be the pitcher I just was.’”

During his recovery, Verlander worked not only on his elbow but also on overall mobility; he said he felt “incredible” now and had incorporated that training into his routine. He said he would spend a few hours on Saturday dissecting his two innings against the Cardinals — anything to keep evolving and pushing.

Verlander has often said that he wants to pitch through age 45, which would give him seven more seasons, a reasonable time frame to collect those 74 victories. Do not be surprised if he does it.

“The carrot in front of me that I keep striving for is to be great,” Verlander said. “And so I wouldn’t do it otherwise.”

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