Last year, Justin Verlander returned from Tommy John surgery. Few were optimistic about the 39-year-old pitcher’s return after missing the entire 2021 season. “I feel like I’m back to 2019,” said Verlander after winning his second Cy Young Award.
He was telling the truth. Last year, Verlander went 18-4 with a 1.75 ERA and 185 strikeouts in 175 innings. The 1.75 ERA was the lowest in the American League (excluding the shortened season) since Pedro Martinez’s 1.74 in 2000. Martinez was in his age-28 season at the time.
Last year, Verlander didn’t have an official no-hitter, but he did go five or more innings in three games and didn’t record a hit. Last year was the first time a player has thrown three no-hitters of five or more innings in a single season. In his first season back in the Tommy John, Verlander was as dominant as ever.
After winning the league’s most wins and ERA titles, he won his third career Cy Young Award. It was a unanimous win with 30 first-place votes. He became just the 11th player in history to win three or more Cy Young Awards in his career, and the first to do so in his first year back from Tommy John surgery. While everyone thought his time was up, Verlander proved he was still going strong by becoming the fourth oldest Cy Young Award winner.
Oldest Cy Young Pitcher
2004: Roger Clemens (42 years, 60 days)
1978: Gaylord Perry (40 years, 17 days)
1959: Early Wynn (39 years, 267 days)
2022 : Justin Verlander (39 years, 227 days)
Verlander’s comeback was accompanied by an equally spectacular contract. He signed a two-year, $86.66 million deal with the New York Mets. His average annualized salary of $4.33 million was tied with Max Scherzer for the highest in the majors. If Verlander pitches at least 140 innings next season and has no issues with his right arm, he can exercise his $35 million player option (which, of course, Verlander can decline). Throw in a no-trade clause and a bonus of up to $750,000 for individual awards, and you can see how extreme the Mets have been in their treatment of Verlander.
However, Verlander has been off track since spring training. It started with his velocity dropping in a spring training start. “If it was the postseason, I would have pitched,” he said nonchalantly, but he didn’t make the Opening Day roster. Verlander, who has had core muscle surgery in the past, complained of soreness in his right upper back’s piriformis muscle. While he reiterated that it wasn’t serious, missing his new team’s opener was a bummer in more ways than one.
The Mets were in no rush to get him back. So, on May 5, nearly a month after Opening Day, Verlander made his comeback game. Coincidentally, it was against his hometown team, the Detroit Tigers. The game was played at Detroit’s home field, Comerica Park, rather than the Mets’ Citi Field.
On this day, Verlander gave up a back-to-back home run in the first inning. He then pitched five innings of two-run ball without allowing another run. However, his first start was a loss as the offense was stymied by the stellar pitching of his opponent, Eduardo Rodriguez, who pitched eight scoreless innings.
In his next start, Verlander faced the Cincinnati Reds. Again, he gave up a run in the first inning, but went seven shutout innings to earn his first win since being traded. This win had a special meaning. It was Verlander’s first win against Cincinnati, a team he had faced only twice before with no wins and one loss. Cincinnati was the last team he hadn’t won against. With the win, Verlander became the 21st pitcher to earn a win against his former club since Major League Baseball expanded to 30 teams in 1998.
Last year, by the fifth game of the season, Verlander said he had “gotten my feel back for when it’s good.” In three games, he pitched eight scoreless innings, five scoreless innings, and six scoreless innings. He gave up two big runs in his remaining appearances, but he knew he was in better shape last year.
Verlander is currently in his fifth start of the season. After going 3-1 with a 1.93 ERA in his first five starts last season, he’s now 2-2 with a 4.80 ERA. Unlike last year, when he was a sure thing, this year is still up in the air. After a win over Cincinnati, he struggled in his first start at home, giving up six runs on eight hits in five innings. He bounced back with eight innings of one-run ball in his next start, but then collapsed again in his next start, giving up six runs on nine hits in five innings. His early-game struggles have been recurring.
Verlander’s ERA/FIP change by inning
1-3: 7.80 / 0.307 (15 innings)
4th-6th : 2.25 / 0.186 (12 innings)
7th-9th : 0.00 / 0.000 (3 innings)
His last start was at Coors Field, a pitcher-unfriendly ballpark. But even with that taken into account, Verlander has definitely been more insecure this year than in previous seasons, especially with his breaking ball.
His four-seam fastball velocity hasn’t changed much this season. He averaged 95 mph last year and 94.3 mph this year. His BABIP is up slightly from .194 last year to .213 this year, but it’s hard to say that this subtle difference is the cause of his decline.
The problem is the breaking ball. While his two-pitch slider has held up, his three-pitch curve is in serious trouble. The curveball, which had a .179 BABIP prior to this year, is now a .353 BABIP and a .706 OPS. Even with a small sample size, the deterioration in batted balls against his curveball suggests that hitters are finding it easier to hit it. In a recent interview, Verlander admitted that his curveball isn’t working the way he wants it to.
Last year, Verlander had the highest percentage of four-seamers at 50.4%. However, he rarely used it as a deciding pitch. His slider and curveball replaced his four-seamer in clutch moments, and the three pitches worked in perfect harmony. This year, however, the slider and curveball have come together, and the four-seam has become the deciding pitch. His four-seam is no longer a potent weapon that can induce hitters to swing and miss at will, and as a result, his strikeout rate has declined this year.
After striking out 12.11 batters per nine innings in 2019, Verlander maintained a 9.51 strikeout rate last season after returning from Tommy John surgery. But this year, he’s down to 6.60. That’s the fewest since his rookie season of 6.00 in 2006. Last year, Verlander’s strikeout rate was quite high, with a breaking ball rate of 69.2%. Without the breaking ball, his strikeouts naturally decreased.
He turned 40 in February, so he’s at an age where it’s not uncommon for senility to set in, and even if he retires now, he’ll still be a Hall of Famer in five years. But for Nolan Ryan, who has always said that Verlander is his idol and goal, Verlander still has a lot to prove. Ryan played 27 seasons in the major leagues and stayed on the mound until he was 46.
The biggest difference between Verlander and Ryan is the changeup. Ryan began honing his changeup in 1981, when he was 34 years old, and finally got it on track five years later in 1986. In fact, when New York Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez saw Ryan’s new changeup in spring training, he recalled, “I was not happy as an adversary that he had found another weapon.” 메이저사이트
Ryan’s hard-earned changeup propelled him into another prime. Starting in 1987, he led the league in strikeouts for four straight years. In 1991, he threw his seventh career no-hitter. In 1991, Ryan was 44 years old. Shortly after his no-hitter, Ryan had this to say about his changeup
“The changeup is the most important pitch to me, because I don’t have an explosive fastball, and it’s the pitch that complements my fastball. If I only threw my fastball and curveball like I used to, I wouldn’t have the honor I have today. The changeup allows me to still throw my fastball. If I didn’t have a changeup, my fastball would have lost its power.”
Verlander also recognizes the need for a changeup. That’s why he works on it every year in spring training. He’s even asked Ryan himself for advice. But this year, he’s still hesitant to use it in practice. For a pitcher who has become one of the best in the game, there are still issues that need to be addressed.
If his slider and curve come back to life, he could be back in the game as soon as his next start. But if he really wants to be the next Nolan Ryan, he’s going to have to do some work.