After two years away, Verlander feeling 'invigorated' in return to Astros

March 13th, 2022

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Once he knew he was going to have Tommy John surgery and miss the entire 2021 season, turned off baseball in his mind and on his television. He immersed himself in his rehab -- and his family -- and wanted to make sure he was in the right place mentally and physically when he was cleared to pitch.

Verlander toyed with the idea of returning to the Astros late last year, but after his doctor warned him that he could be ending his career “in a blaze of glory,” he chose to get ready for 2022 instead. That meant finding somewhere to play, and after fielding multiple offers and having long talks with his wife, Kate Upton, while on vacation in Italy last November, he made the decision to return to Houston.

Verlander, who signed a one-year, $25 million deal with an option for 2023, said he was “invigorated” and “excited” after throwing his first live batting practice of the spring Sunday at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. The 39-year-old, who had Tommy John in September 2020, has thrown only one game -- six innings against the Mariners on July 24, 2020 -- in the last two years.

“I feel so blessed to be here,” he said after throwing 33 pitches to hitters on the back fields. “But I’m hoping to come out of it better and when I look back in who knows how long -- five, six, seven years? I’m thankful for the time that I have, not only with my family but what I’ve learned and how it’s probably going to extend my career.”

Verlander is attempting to become the 10th known pitcher to come back from Tommy John surgery after undergoing the procedure at 37 years or older. And probably no one has had it done with 2,988 career regular-season innings on his résumé, including 12 years of at least 200 innings pitched from 2007-19.

“I think I’m kind of a case study,” he said. “I think a lot of guys who have Tommy John surgery are younger or earlier in their career and don’t have 3,000 Major League innings under their belt, or close to it. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this. I’m not going to try to set an expectation of less innings. I’m going to go out there and try to replicate a normal season for myself and treat everything like I normally do and hope the muscle memory of 15 years of however many years with 200 innings is still there.”

The baseball lockout didn’t do much to derail Verlander’s preparation for Opening Day. He has a home in Jupiter, Fla. -- just down the road from the Astros’ Spring Training site -- and had a physical therapist, a workout facility and players to throw with and against at his disposal. He expected the lockout to last a bit longer, which is why he says he’s a few days behind where he’d normally be this time of the spring.

Verlander would be a lock to start on Opening Day for the Astros on April 7 against the Angels, but that might require pushing himself a little harder than he wants to in the next three weeks. He said he’s “a hair behind” and likely won’t be built up to throw 100 pitches by then.

“The last thing I wanted to do coming off surgery was build up and build back down and then build up again,” he said. “That was never on the radar for me. I wasn’t going to do that again [like he did in spring 2020 after COVID-19 shutdown camp]. I was like, ‘OK, let me try to build up to a place where I think I can get ready in a three-week period,’ and I kind of managed my schedule around that and started getting on a five-day routine and then the deal came together so quickly.”

In his last full healthy season, Verlander enjoyed one of the best years of his career in 2019 en route to his second career Cy Young Award. He made 34 starts and went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP in 223 innings. He threw his third career no-hitter and reached 3,000 career strikeouts, while whiffing 300 in a season for the first time.

Being on the mound is what he misses the most and getting a chance to return with his teammates Sunday marked a fresh start in his career.

“Without baseball, these last two years went so fast,” he said. “My daughter’s growing so fast, and I really cherish the time I got to spend with her. Walking in the locker room and being back here around the guys, it’s really a weird feeling because it feels like yesterday I was with them but it was a long time ago. A lot’s happened in the world, a lot’s changed for myself and the team and the world. It’s kind of a weird experience, but it feels great.”