Guess who’s hitting the free agent market?Image: Getty Images
The 2022 MLB offseason is filled with outstanding free agents. With studs like Kevin Gausman, Freddie Freeman, Max Scherzer, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, and Kris Bryant all on the market, the MLB hot stove is sure to overcook the souffle many times over before March.
One of the more intriguing free agents is Astros’ ace Justin Verlander. Verlander, who will be 39 years old before the start of the 2022 season, missed part of the 2020 season and all of the 2021 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. While there was hope that the 2019 AL Cy Young winner could return toward the end of last season, Astros’ GM James Click announced at the end of August that Verlander would not take the field.
Verlander’s decision to play it safe, and not push anything too far in an effort to return seems to be paying off in huge ways. In his first public workout in front of MLB scouts, Verlander “looked like himself” as he threw a 25-pitch bullpen with his fastball consistently hitting speeds of 94-96 miles per hour.
Several scouts representing 25 MLB teams were in attendance. It’s becoming clear that whatever team ends up signing Verlander will have to dish out a very pretty penny. However, some Astros fans do not want Verlander back in Houston.
Despite a handful of Astros fans thinking Verlander abandoned his team during a championship-caliber season, every fan base should be ecstatic if their team managed to snag Verlander even if he gets $30 million, including the Astros.
Only strikeout pitchers last as long as Verlander has. Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, and Curt Schilling were all prolific strikeout pitchers before turning 40 years old, and their ability to miss bats played a huge role in their career longevity. Even if Verlander can only record numbers similar to what he saw in his limited time in 2020, he would be the most effective strikeout pitcher of all-time at his age. That’s not too tall an order either seeing as how in Verlander’s last full season, 2019, he was striking out over 12 batters per nine innings, and based on the reports and quotes coming out of Verlander’s bullpen, he seems ready to jump right back into 2019 form.
Yes, there are some concerns. Since 1980, only one pitcher has managed to maintain a strikeout rate higher than 9.0 K/9 (Nolan Ryan) after age 40. It’s also true that every pitcher who relied on high strikeout rates prior to turning 40 has struggled to maintain their effectiveness against MLB hitters after their strikeout numbers dropped. Randy Johnson’s K/9 fell from 11.2 between 1988 and 2003 to 8.92 after he turned 40 years old. In turn, his ERA jumped from 3.10 to 3.87 during those same spans. Not to mention that with today’s emphasis on “swing-and-miss”-type pitching, any drop in velocity or movement can end up being devastating for a pitcher, making it all the less likely Verlander signs for anything longer than a 2-year deal.
However, this is where Verlander’s decision not to return to the Astros in 2021 comes into play. Verlander eats up a lot of innings. He’s pitched at least 200 innings in 12 of the last 15 seasons. He even led the league in innings pitched in 2019. That much wear and tear on a pitcher’s arm can play a huge factor in whether or not a team is willing to pay up for a veteran pitcher. By opting to rest his arm for the entirety of 2021, Verlander gave himself some much-needed rest.
We’ve seen how taking a lengthy break from baseball can positively affect players down the line. Buster Posey had one of the best seasons of his career after opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID concerns. Do you think his stellar 2021 campaign had nothing to do with the fact that, for an entire year, Posey was no longer suffering from having to get in the squat every three out of four days? It absolutely did.
Verlander says he wants to keep playing until he’s 45 years old. While there were concerns that Verlander would lose a step after recovering from the first Tommy John surgery of his career, his bullpen has seemed to calm some nerves.
There were signs of a potential decline on the horizon in 2019. For one, Verlander’s velocity dipped below 95 mph (94.8), almost a full mile slower than his average fastball velocity in 2018 (95.6). He also appeared to be extremely lucky that season. His 2019 ERA was 2.58, but his FIP sat at 3.30 — that’s not a normal difference. His BABIP was also .219 in 2019. His career BABIP prior to 2019 was .286, a much more common number for strikeout pitchers to have. That being said, Verlander would still have been incredibly effective if his ERA and BABIP were more in line with where his more advanced metrics measured him. He undoubtedly would’ve been the Astros ace in 2021 as well.
I understand the skepticism surrounding Verlander’s return to action, but being on the sideline for nearly two full seasons now can do nothing but good things for a pitcher in his late 30s. The risk is definitely there, but Verlander still has the tools to be a game-changer in 2022 and beyond.