Justin Verlander’s Tommy John Surgery Throws His Future Into Doubt

Getting old is for the birds. Since turning 37 on February 20, as the 2020 season has gone through its starts and stops, Justin Verlander has dealt with triceps soreness, a groin strain that required surgery and, after throwing six strong innings in his Opening Day start on July 24, a forearm strain. On Saturday, he announced that he would need Tommy John surgery, not only ruling out what the Astros hoped would be a comeback for this postseason, but almost certainly sidelining him for all of 2021, sending him into free agency with just one outing over a two-year span, and preventing him from attaining upper-tier spots in the all-time rankings of some significant categories.

Verlander broke the news himself via Instagram, saying in a video that he felt something in his elbow during Wednesday’s simulated game, which led to an MRI. Here’s the written statement from that post:

After consulting with several of the best doctors, it has become clear that I need Tommy John surgery. I was hopeful that I would be able to return to competition in 2020, however, during my simulated game unfortunately the injury worsened. Obviously I’m extremely disappointed, but I will not let this slow down my aspirations for my career. I will approach this rehab the only way I know, attack and don’t look back. I’m confident that with a proper rehabilitation program and my unwavering commitment that this surgery will ultimately lengthen my career as opposed to shorten it. I can’t thank my teammates, coaches, the front office and my fans enough for the support they have given me so far in this process. I’m eager to get through this recovery and back on the field to continue to do what I love.

This isn’t entirely a shock, but it is a bummer. In the wake of his forearm strain, some outlets had reported that Verlander would be out for the season, though the pitcher and the team didn’t rule out a comeback. He resumed throwing of flat ground in mid-August, off a mound in the first week of September, and had gone as high as 55-60 pitches in bullpen sessions before Wednesday, when he threw a total of 75 pitches, though only 24 game during his simulated game. The Astros hoped that he could make one more simulated start on Monday and then one competitive start before the postseason, but Verlander’s ulnar collateral ligament wasn’t buying it.

Thus Verlander joins an the All-Star cast of pitchers who’ve undergone Tommy John this year, including Luis Severino, Chris Sale, and Noah Syndergaard. Despite the abbreviated schedule, more pitchers have undergone the procedure in 2020 (19 including Verlander) than last year (16). The first half-dozen of those, including the aforementioned big names, did so during spring training; you can’t pin those on the layoff and rapid ramp-up, and I suspect we’ll need a couple of years to understand the true impact of this season on what has generally been a leveling-off of TJ totals at the major league level over the past half-decade, accompanied by a downward trend throughout the professional ranks. Speaking of which, with no true minor league season, the total number of professional pitchers undergoing TJ this year is about half of what it was last year (35 vs. 72):

This is a difficult blow for the Astros, both for 2020 and ’21. Their rotation appeared flimsy even at the time of Verlander’s triceps scare, as the team shed Gerrit Cole, Wade Miley, and Collin McHugh via free agency over the winter without bringing in anybody of note from outside the organization in free agency or trade. Led by Zack Greinke — acquired at last year’s trade deadline to help offset that exodus — the unit hasn’t been bad, entering Sunday ranked sixth in both FIP (4.33) and WAR (4.0) and seventh in ERA (4.40), but it is short on depth and postseason experience:

Astros Available Starters
Name GS IP K% BB% HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Zack Greinke 11 62.1 24.8% 3.2% 0.87 3.90 2.88 1.9
Framber Valdez 9 57.1 25.4% 6.4% 0.78 4.24 3.22 1.4
Lance McCullers Jr. 9 44.1 21.5% 8.6% 0.81 4.87 3.97 0.7
Cristian Javier 9 45.2 23.5% 9.5% 1.97 3.55 5.38 0.3
Jose Urquidy 4 22.2 13.8% 9.2% 0.79 3.00 5.69 0.3TK
Brandon Bielak 6 21.2 16.2% 12.1% 3.32 7.06 8.31 -0.5

McCullers, who missed all of last season due to his own Tommy John, has not pitched up to his presurgery standard, though on September 16, the 26-year-old righty returned from a 10-day Injured List stint due to a nerve irritation in his neck and spun seven scoreless innings against the Rangers. He’s got more October experience than anybody in the rotation besides Greinke, having pitched in the 2015, ’17 and ’18 postseasons; most notably, he closed out the Yankees with four shutout innings of relief in Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS and turned in 2.1 scoreless innings against the Dodgers to start Game 7 of the World Series. His experience in working long out of the bullpen provides Baker with an alternative to starting.

Urquidy, a 25-year-old righty who made seven starts and two relief appearances totaling 41 innings last year, didn’t make an appearance until September due to a positive test for COVID-19, but he’s a seasoned veteran as far as the postseason is concerned, at least relative to this bunch. His four appearances totaling 10 innings last October include five shutout innings in his lone start in Game 4 of the World Series against the Nationals. He’s fully stretched out, having gone at least six innings in each of his past three starts, though only one of them (September 10 against the A’s) was against a playoff-caliber team.

The Astros do have reasonable alternatives in Valdez, a 26-year-old lefty, and Javier, a 23-year-old rookie righty. Valdez, now in his third season in the majors, has rebounded from a dismal 2019 season (5.86 ERA, 4.98 FIP in 70.2 innings) to be the team’s second-best starter, though he was pounded for 13 runs in 12 innings across back-to-back starts against the Angels and Dodgers before righting himself against the lowly Rangers. Javier has outpitched his gaudy walk and homer rates, though he’s done a very good job of limiting hard contact, placing in the 91st percentile in hard-hit rate (29.0%).

In the end, Dusty Baker’s choice for who starts behind Greinke may come down to matchups. At 27-26, the Astros are locked into the sixth seed for the Wild Card Series; currently, they’d face the A’s (33-20), though it’s not out of question that the White Sox (34-19) or Rays (35-19) could fall to third. Tampa Bay has the strongest left-handed presence, followed by Oakland, with Chicago last in the league among PA by lefties; Urquidy and Valdez have been the most successful from among this group against lefties over the past two seasons, holding them to wOBAs of .218 and .289, respectively, and McCullers has held them to a .278 mark in his career (.319 this year). Chicago is the most righty-heavy, and Javier (.200) has fared the best against righties, with the rest between .328 and .338 — a big step down. Most likely, the Astros will have to piece together a plan, because they have nobody behind Greinke who presents himself as an obvious answer once such considerations are brought into play.

From a longer-term standpoint, this may mean that Verlander has thrown his last competitive pitch as an Astro, or at least the last under the two-year, $66 million extension he signed in March 2019 (I’ll pause while you fetch the Kleenex to weep for Jim Crane paying him $11 million per inning). With Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel, Brad Peacock, Josh Reddick, and George Springer coming off the books this winter, general manager James Click will have money to put towards the rotation — that is, if the Astros are hoping to contend in 2021 rather than start another cycle of tanking.

As for Verlander, he likely punched his ticket to Cooperstown in 2019 while collecting his third no-hitter, second Cy Young, and 3,000th strikeout (via his first 300-strikeout season, achieving both milestones in the same game). Via Baseball Reference’s version of WAR, his 71.8 career/50.0 peak/60.9 JAWS line is pretty close to the position standards (73.3/50.0/61.6); he’s the active leader in the latter two categories, though Greinke and Clayton Kershaw will likely pass him in JAWS (they’re at 60.2 and 59.7) before he returns.

Losing his age-37 and -38 seasons will likely deprive Verlander a shot at topping Pud Galvin (67.7) to claim a top-25 spot in JAWS, but that’s less likely to be noticed among voters and fans than getting to 300 wins and/or 4,000 strikeouts, or at least a spot in the top 10 in the latter category, which would mean surpassing Greg Maddux’s 3,371.

Towards that end, I asked Dan Szymborski to run some ZiPS projections to give us an idea of the impact Verlander’s injuries will have on his future seasonal and and career numbers. First, here’s how he would have looked if he had been healthy to start 2021:

Verlander ZiPS Projection Before TJS
Year Age W L ERA GS IP BB SO ERA+ WAR
2021 38 11 6 3.38 23 143.7 33 179 131 3.5
2022 39 10 6 3.54 21 127.0 30 152 125 2.9
2023 40 9 6 3.76 20 124.3 31 145 118 2.5
2024 41 9 6 3.73 19 115.7 28 135 119 2.4
2021-24 39 23 3.60 83 511 122 610 124 11.2
Thru 2020 226 129 3.33 454 2988 851 3013 129 71.8
Totals 265 152 3.37 537 3499 973 3623 128 83.0

Part of the problem with projecting Verlander is how far into the future to go; he himself has said he wants to pitch until he’s 45, which is hardly impossible given his ability to miss bats; atop the career strikeout list are Nolan Ryan, who pitched until he was 46, followed by Randy Johnson (45), Roger Clemens (45), and Steve Carlton (43). The projection above certainly suggests a pitcher successful enough that he could keep going, but if he were to pack it in at that point, he’d rank seventh in strikeouts, 17 short of Tom Seaver, who pitched “only” through his age-41 season and finished with 3,640 K’s. He’d also finish with 66.5 JAWS, good for 26th on the career leaderboard, between Galvin and Amos Rusie (64.6), who are followed by Curt Schilling, Ed Walsh, and Mike Mussina in the rankings.

The post-surgery projections, on the other hand, suggest he would be about league-average in limited duty:

Verlander ZiPS Projection After TJS
Year Age W L ERA GS IP BB SO ERA+ WAR
2022 39 5 3 4.31 11 64.7 15 69 103 0.9
2023 40 4 3 4.42 9 57.0 14 58 100 0.8
2024 41 4 3 4.68 9 54.7 13 54 95 0.6
2022-24 12 10 4.46 29 176 42 182 99 2.3
Thru 2020 226 129 3.33 454 2988 851 3013 129 71.8
Totals 238 139 3.39 483 3164 893 3195 127 74.1

Via this route, which looks as though it would be a slog, Verlander would eke past Fergie Jenkins (3,192) for 12th in strikeouts and finish 0.1 behind Ryan (62.2) in JAWS, 32nd ahead of 19th-century hurler Tommy Bond (61.8).

Regarding Verlander’s chances at the aforementioned round-numbered milestones, I asked Dan for some estimates. Entering 2020 in good health, he had a 32% chance at 300 wins and a 38% chance at 4,000 strikeouts. With no season but good health entering 2021, those would have dropped to 14% and 30%, respectively. With a non-TJS injury that wiped out his 2021, those odds would have instead dropped to 10% and 27%. With the surgery, he’s down to 4% and 11%, though again, it’s important to point out that those odds depend upon the length of his return past the point when most players hang ’em up.

“Since he was already ‘off’ the pace,” explained Dan, “the scenarios under which he manages 300/4,000, especially the former, relied on him aging better than ZiPS expected on average. But two missed seasons to injury means there’s practically no chance of him aging better than ZiPS expected on average after 2019.”

Again, that’s a bummer. If there’s an upside to this, it’s that Verlander will join John Smoltz on the short list of enshrined pitchers who underwent Tommy John surgery. Billy Wagner — who did jump from 16.7% in the 2019 BBWAA balloting to 31.7% in 2020, his fifth year of eligibility — could beat him there, though he still faces an uphill battle, and it will be awhile before another candidate (Sale or Jacob deGrom, both much further away) even gets on that particular radar. For now it will suffice to say that Verlander’s injury is a loss for the Astros, and will likely cost him some significant milestones. Let’s hope we haven’t seen the last of one of the game’s greats pitching at the top of his game.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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tomerafan
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tomerafan

Verlander should have a third Cy Young award (2018), which would make him a no-doubt HOFer.

Also, knowing what a competitor Verlander is, if he can’t rebuild his arm strength to be an effective starter, I’d love to see him in a high-leverage bullpen role, with Smoltz as a model. Topping off his career with a couple of 30-40 save seasons would be a lot more interesting than trying to build on 226 wins, since 300 isn’t in sight.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Smoltz isn’t exactly a model for that, since he underwent a mid-career role chance and eventually returned to starting.

KwisatzHaderach
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KwisatzHaderach

I mean, he should have won in 2016 too, but I don’t think there was any question that he’s a no doubt HOFer already.

PC1970
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PC1970

Actually, he should have won in 2012, also. He had by far the best peripherals in 2012, but, David Price won 20 games in a low run scoring environment in Tampa, while Verlander “only” won 17 due to poor run support in Detroit

Lack of run support by Detroit cost him in 2012 & 2016. Blake Snell’s ridiculous luck with men on base cost him in 2018. That said, Cole probably deserved it last year.