Astros, Verlander Agree to Return Engagement by Brendan Gawlowski November 18, 2021 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.