When the New York Mets signed Justin Verlander to a two-year, $86 million contract in December, there were a few reasonable ways for fans to look at it. Yes, Verlander is entering his age-40 season. But he is also the defending American League Cy Young Award winner. And sure, he underwent Tommy John surgery as recently as September 2020. But his reconstructed elbow has less than 200 MLB innings on it since that procedure, including the 2022 postseason.
So, with that new elbow tendon, should we think of Verlander as younger than advertised? Did the Mets sign a pitcher who, via the surgery, was rebuilt to actually be better than he was before? Like the Six Million Dollar Man of yesteryear, give or take $80 million?
Maybe not exactly. Despite his historic recovery from the reconstructive procedure, it turns out Verlander isn’t bionic — at least not literally.1 However there is ample medical evidence, as well as historical data from similar pitchers in his age group, to suggest that Verlander is very likely to again be one of baseball’s best.
“Typically about two years after [Tommy John] surgery, the ligament is completely healed,” said Glenn Fleisig, biomechanics research director of the American Sports Medicine Institute, speaking of pitchers generally but not Verlander specifically. “But it’s not magically better. It’s not bionic. It looks no worse than a healthy ligament that never was repaired.”
What that means as a practical matter, according to Fleisig, is that the 80 percent of pitchers who recover from Tommy John well enough to return to play in MLB should now be projected with their age-peers. Not necessarily better than them, but not worse. “It’s like they never were hurt,” he said. “But the natural career [for a pitcher] is that their performance goes down each year when they get older. All performance stats start to deteriorate.”
But if Verlander is basically back to square one for a 40-year-old, he’s still starting from a better place than nearly every other historical pitcher his same age.
Finding those age-based comparables for Verlander is not easy — just 55 other 39-year-old pitchers in the modern era (since 1901) have qualified for an ERA title at all. And far fewer have shown anything resembling the level of performance Verlander reached in his first year back from surgery, when he led the league in wins, ERA and WHIP. Even his fielding independent pitching (FIP, which assumes average defense on balls in play) was a sterling 2.49. Only Cy Young (in 1906) had a better FIP at age 39 while qualifying for the ERA title.
|Rk||Player||Team||Season||Age 39 FIP||Age 40 FIP||% Diff|
Two of the pitchers on the list actually improved at age 40: Nolan Ryan (dramatically, in 1987) and Babe Adams (barely, in 1922). Two of the pitchers collapsed (Phil Niekro, with a 50.7 percent FIP increase in 1979 and Jerry Koosman, with a 36.5 percent increase in 1983). On average, the group of qualified pitchers in the following season saw their FIP get worse by 13.9 percent. Another pitcher, Steve Carlton in 1985, was fighting a shoulder injury for much of the year. But the bottom line for Verlander is that, if he suffers the average age-40 regression, his FIP would increase to 2.84 — which still would have ranked seventh in MLB in 2022.
You’ll notice that Verlander is the only pitcher this century to make that all-time age-39 list. So what if we focus on just guys who pitched since 2000? Here is how all 14 age-39 qualifiers fared at age 40:2
|Rk||Player||Team(s)||Season||Age 39 FIP||Age 40 FIP||% Diff|
|2||Chuck Finley*||CLE, STL||2002||3.27||—||—|
This group presents an even more bullish forecast for Verlander, who towers above most of his age-based peers — no surprise, given his surefire Hall of Fame career.
Half of the group had no change in performance or pitched even better at age 40, as measured by FIP. Just two, Tom Glavine in 2006 and Curt Schilling in 2007, suffered significant declines. Overall, the group saw their collective FIP rise by a minuscule 3 percent, which would bump Verlander’s age-40 FIP to 2.56. That still would have ranked fourth in MLB in 2022 (unchanged from Verlander’s actual rank).
If the most similar age-39 pitchers in performance to Verlander — whether we look at them since 1901 or since the start of this century — are any indication, Verlander should regress only slightly in 2023. And despite their advanced ages, just one of the 18 top performers in the two groups (or 5.6 percent) suffered a significant injury at age 40. So Verlander’s consensus projection of 170 innings pitched seems, if anything, conservative.
Like Young, Ryan and Roger Clemens before him, Verlander seems to be a pitching unicorn. And this holds true for his rebound from Tommy John surgery, too. Looking at all of the players who had the surgery around Verlander’s time (2019 and 2020), they performed as a group as expected — about 80 percent made it back to play again, and their FIP was about where it was before.3 Winning a Cy Young Award unanimously in the first year back from surgery is not something anyone could have predicted, but Verlander did it anyway.
If, in accordance with Fleisig’s rule of thumb, Verlander’s elbow is back to where it would have been at age 40 with no injury, he will be well worth the money the Mets paid him. And Verlander’s history says he may beat those expectations, even outpitching his peers with far younger arms.