Astros, Verlander Agree to Return Engagement

The last time we saw Justin Verlander pitch, he looked like his usual, dominant self. In six innings against Seattle, he allowed only three hits and two runs while striking out seven. As had been the case in his Cy Young season, he was a little dinger-prone, surrendering two blasts to an otherwise overmatched Mariners lineup. But in an Opening Day start played in unusual circumstances, his stuff looked as sharp as ever.

Unfortunately, that last outing was in July of 2020. Within the week, Verlander landed on the injured list with a forearm strain. Two months later, the future Hall of Famer announced that he was undergoing Tommy John surgery. The procedure sidelined him for all of 2021, his last season prior to reaching free agency.

The timing gave the Astros a difficult decision. With no recent performance to evaluate, Houston nonetheless extended their ace a qualifying offer, which forced Verlander to pick between testing a very uncertain free agent market and taking a $10 million pay cut. He ultimately turned down the QO, but not the Astros themselves. In news amusingly broken by his brother Ben, Verlander re-signed with Houston yesterday on a one-year, $25 million deal that includes a $25 million player option for a second year.

A reunion between player and club suits both parties. We don’t know whether Verlander is in the twilight of his career just yet: age is just a number for pitchers, and prior to the injury, JV was one of the game’s very best hurlers. Still, it’s reasonable to assume that he’s at least near the end of his career, and if he wants to get the most out of his remaining years, it makes sense to enter a potential bounce-back season with as few distractions and new hurdles as possible. Staying put should help facilitate that. Houston has been his in-season home for more than four years now, and with the notable exception of Brent Strom’s departure, the Astros remain as well-resourced as ever. Heading into an uncertain campaign, Verlander is about as well-positioned as he could be to return to form.

The fit is perhaps even better on the team’s side, which may seem odd on the surface because Houston already has several good starters. Even if Zack Greinke leaves, as seems likely, Houston returns Lance McCullers Jr., Luis Garcia, Framber Valdez, José Urquidy, and Jake Odorizzi, a group that made 121 starts last year. Lurking in the wings are Cristian Javier, a talented arm who opened last season in the rotation, and Hunter Brown, a Top 100 prospect who reached Triple-A last season. The depth here is enviable:

Returning Astros Starters
Name Starts ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Lance McCullers Jr. 28 3.16 3.52 3.69 3.3
Luis Garcia 28 3.30 3.63 3.93 3.1
Framber Valdez 22 3.14 4.01 3.58 1.9
José Urquidy 20 3.62 4.14 4.38 1.8
Jake Odorizzi 23 4.21 4.48 4.82 1.1
Cristian Javier 9 3.55 4.43 4.35 0.7

But if Houston’s World Series loss came with a broader lesson, it would be about the limitations of a pitching staff light on frontline arms and dependable innings eaters. Of the returning starters, only McCullers topped 160 innings, and even he only averaged 17 outs per start. He also missed the World Series with a forearm injury, the latest in a long line of maladies that have limited him to just 671 frames since his debut in 2015. Garcia, Valdez, and Urquidy all project as quality mid-rotation arms but none of them have ever carried a starter’s workload for a full year and all of them had massive innings jumps in 2021. For all their depth, Houston doesn’t currently have a true No. 1 on the roster.

Verlander could again assume that mantle. In his last full season, the righty notched a 2.58 ERA and 3.27 FIP across 223 innings (a total that would have led the majors in 2021). In that season, opponents hit .171 against him. He struck out a career-high 35.4% of hitters he faced, and he only walked 4.8% — his second-best mark, trailing only the 4.4% he registered in 2018. Those numbers came alongside steady velocity across the board. The Astros may not need a starter. But if Verlander can offer anything close to that production again in 2021, nobody will be stressing too much about where Odorizzi, Javier, and Urquidy fall in the rotation’s pecking order.

There is a bit of risk involved. The money isn’t a huge issue, as the Astros can afford to pay $25 million for a gilded flier. They’re still $30 million away from incurring luxury tax penalties even after counting Verlander’s salary, and that’s assuming the tax threshold doesn’t increase in this winter’s collective bargaining negotiations; 2023 looks even more scant, though of course free agent signings could change that.

There are a couple of orange flags in Verlander’s profile, however, even dating back to 2019. The first is home runs. His 1.45 HR/9 ratio was, even in the juiciest ball season, pretty darn high. Some of that can be brushed aside with nods to the ball and a stratospheric HR/FB%. But there are reasons to worry he’ll be vulnerable to the long ball again. Verlander had elite spin rates and movement profiles in 2018 and ’19. In theory, that’s a good thing, but it’s notable that both the movement and the spin were significantly better following his trade to Houston from Detroit in 2017. We can’t say for sure whether he was using a little of the sticky, but if he was, some of the tools at his disposal back then are (in theory) not available to him now. That’s not a great development for someone looking to give up fewer homers.

There’s also the uncertainty surrounding Verlander’s return from the shelf. For as dominant as he’s been throughout his career, Verlander is no spring chicken. He will be 39 on Opening Day, and he’s coming off of a major surgery. He had the procedure done at the age of 37, and according to John Roegele’s Tommy John database, that makes him the sixth oldest pitcher (and second oldest starter) to undergo that particular operation. Even if we include a few other 37-year-olds to enlarge the sample, the track record of pitchers coming back from Tommy John at his age or older is pretty grim viewing:

Tommy John Surgery at Age 37
Name Age at surgery Pre-surgery career ERA+ Post-surgery IP Post-surgery ERA+
Jamie Moyer 47 104 53.2 82
John Franco 41 144 95.1 93
Joe Nathan 40 150 6.1
Jose Contreras 40 101 5 43
Rafael Betancourt 38 140 39.1 75
Mike Fetters 38 120 18.2 54
Justin Verlander 37
Bronson Arroyo 37 103 71 61
Arthur Rhodes 37 104 176.2 154
Gary Lavelle 37 129 32 77
SOURCE: John Roegele’s Tommy John Surgery List

Shoutout to Arthur Rhodes.

We can’t just assume that Verlander will stumble in his return like previous elder arms: He’s a different pitcher, with a different body and presumably a more sophisticated rehab than the names listed above. But we also have to acknowledge the possibility that elbow surgery — a potential inflection point at the best of times — is a dicier proposition than usual at his age. A return to form is possible, but there’s also a chance that he’s done as an effective pitcher. There’s plenty of upside for Houston here, but in targeting Verlander, the opportunity cost is that the Astros are foregoing a safer option, and could end up with a diminished version of him for a year more if he exercises his option.

At the end of the day though, there’s risk in any move. Even if Verlander is a shadow of his former self, the Astros have a good enough roster to win the AL West. If he is effective, Houston likely enters October as one of the two or three favorites for the title. The terms of the deal are steeper than we anticipated in our recent ranking of the top 50 free agents (Verlander checked in at No. 19), particularly when you consider the option, but Houston is presumably aware of the possibility of him turning into a pumpkin. Ultimately, Verlander gets to return to his old stomping grounds and Houston could be getting an ace at a discount. Everyone should be happy here.

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2 years ago

The market for Verlander had to be very, very good. The Astros basically had to guarantee him $50M whether he throws a single pitch for them or not, but if he’s good in 2022, he can opt out and go for more money as a free agent. The Astros have assumed all the risk at a high AAV. I’m not questioning the decision, just noting he must have been receiving very strong interest from other teams for the Astros to extend this type of offer.

2 years ago
Reply to  MikeD

Considering the interest Syndergaard received, also after missing two years (while young), and never reaching the highs that Verlander has reached, yeah, I’m guessing the interest in Verlander was probably very strong throughout the league.

Potential Cy Young winners don’t get to FA all that often…

2 years ago

Are you saying the “while young” is a positive or negative? Do you view Syndergaard as similarly likely to win CYA?

2 years ago
Reply to  MikeD

In previous offseasons, I’ve argued that opt-outs are really worth nothing to a team because they often come late enough in the contract that if they do opt out, you get all the benefit without the downside (and if they don’t opt-out, it doesn’t change things). But when you see deals like this, you can see how the use of them has changed. It’s less a pillow deal and more of a deal that is ensured so that no matter what, Verlander can’t lose it. We’ve seen deals like this before, but it is wild for a guy who hasn’t pitched in two years to get it.

2 years ago
Reply to  MikeD

I am having a tough time with the reasoning behind the massive contracts, albeit short term, for two pitchers who have combined to throw 8 innings in 2 years, and this in a game that is rapidly lessening the importance of starting pitching. Desperation is likely the most logical answer. The only other choices seem to be incompetence or insanity.

Antonio Bananas
2 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Maybe teams don’t value $/WAR linearly and the risk/reward for an ace is worth it to them?

What other options do they have for a potential ace?

2 years ago

I think that your response affirms my thesis. They are desperate for anybody and I mean any body that can possibly lift their arm off the ground. From a risk reward valuation these signings make little or no sense. With even the top of the rotation pitchers being limited to twice through the order the cost of starters should be dropping. Especially for wildly risky types such as Verlander, age 39, and Syndergaard, who gave up a hit an inning in his last full season and is hinting that the decline may have already begun.