Oddsmakers can be forgiven if they didn’t have high expectations for Justin Verlander entering the 2022 season. After all, the Virginia native had just turned 39 years old and hadn’t set foot on a big-league mound since July 24, 2020, when a seemingly innocuous forearm strain ended his season and led to Tommy John surgery several months later. If anything, his +2,000 American League Cy Young odds on Opening Day may have seemed overly generous.
Fast forward to May 27, and Verlander is 6-1 with a 1.22 ERA and his +450 AL Cy Young odds are the shortest on the Junior Circuit.
It’s quite a turnaround for a player who briefly became more famous for being married to swimsuit model Kate Upton than for anything he did on a baseball diamond.
Odds to win AL Cy Young award
|Justin Verlander (Astros)||+450|
|Kevin Gausman (Blue Jays)||+500|
|Gerrit Cole (Yankees)||+750|
|Alek Manoah (Blue Jays)||+800|
|Shohei Ohtani (Angels)||+900|
|Dylan Cease (White Sox)||+900|
|Shane McClanahan (Rays)||+900|
|Nestor Cortes Jr. (Yankees)||+1,200|
|Shane Bieber (Guardians)||+2,000|
|Logan Gilbert (Mariners)||+2,000|
Odds courtesy of BetMGM as of May 27, 2022.
Verlander hasn’t missed a beat
Verlander spent over 20 months rehabbing his surgically-repaired right elbow. It was slow, tedious, and at times painful, but he dutifully stuck to the program and made his return to the bump on April 9, 2022, against the Los Angeles Angels. Any concerns over a dropoff in performance were immediately put to rest as he topped 96 mph in the first inning and struck out seven batters over five frames.
Verlander’s first start in nearly two years gave fans hope the towering righty could win MLB Comeback Player of the Year honors. What he’s done since has indicated he may scoop up even more hardware at season’s end.
Appearing in his 17th season, the eight-time All-Star has won each of his last five starts for the Houston Astros and has given up just three earned runs during that stretch. Verlander presently leads the AL in wins, ERA, ERA+, WHIP, and hits per nine innings and is on pace to win 20 games or more for the third time in his decorated career. That’s no small feat in an era where there have been just four 20-game winners in the American League since 2017.
JV has changed his approach
It's easy to point to good health as the reason for Verlander’s resounding success, but there’s far more to his triumphant return than just that, especially considering the fact his velocity and spin rates are both down from his last healthy season in 2019. The veteran right-hander has switched up his approach and is depending far less on his fastball (down from 59% over his career to 48% in 2022) and far more on his curve (17.8%) to compensate for his declining power.
3,014 career innings pitched and Justin Verlander— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) April 30, 2022
is still honing his craft at every opportunity. Legend pic.twitter.com/UaMHIWLZjm
He's also tapping into something that few other players can match: his enormous experience. “I’m able to go with my instincts and not just be one-dimensional,” he recently told The Detroit News. “I can read swings. I can read hitters. I can try to do the little things that make a difference. If your stuff isn’t all there on a given day, I’m able to work with it because of the vast knowledge I’ve built pitching so long.”
That knowledge — combined with his still impressive skills — has Verlander back at the top of his profession, and the Astros atop the AL West.
Verlander backers have reason for optimism
It would be premature to hand Verlander his third Cy Young award this early in the season, but he does have two factors working in his favor. For starters, the award often boils down to narratives, and there are few things voters love more than a good comeback story. It helps explain why Cliff Lee (2008) and Rick Porcello (2016) both won the Cy Young and Comeback Player of the Year honors simultaneously, and it gives Verlander a tremendous leg up on the competition.
Secondly, every single AL Cy Young winner in the last five years has ranked either first or second in ERA and WHIP. They’re two critically important statistical categories, and Verlander is presently tops in both. Retaining his stranglehold on the two metrics won’t be easy, but it’s a feat he accomplished in 2011 and 2019 when he won his two previous Cy Youngs.
Verlander is out to make history
Verlander is just the 10th pitcher ever to come back from Tommy John surgery after undergoing the procedure this late in his career. In a few more months he could also become the third-oldest player to win baseball's top pitching award. Don't bet against it.