HOUSTON -- Speaking with reporters for the first time in nearly 10 months, pitcher Justin Verlander said his recovery from Tommy John surgery performed on his right elbow last fall is progressing smoothly, and he didn’t completely rule out a return to the mound for the Astros this year.
Verlander, who had surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow Sept. 30, admitted that pitching in 2021 is a long shot, considering there would be a high risk of reinjury and the Astros would have to march deep into the playoffs. Verlander added that the recovery timeline would make it impossible for him to be a starter until next year.
“Do I want to pitch? Absolutely,” Verlander said Friday during a Zoom call with Houston reporters. “There’s a lot of room to go. There’s a lot of things that need to go perfectly from now until then for that even to be a discussion. If that time comes, I’m going to have to talk with my surgeon, all of our staff.”
Even still, Verlander, 38, knows there will be a lot of factors that will weigh into that decision beyond how he feels and if the Astros make a long playoff run. He said he’s “nowhere close to the finish line yet.”
“I hope that my teammates put me in position to make that decision,” Verlander said. “I hope the guys continue to play great baseball and play deep into October. That would be very difficult for me not to join them. That’s a long way away, and there’s a lot of people that would have to help in that decision-making.”
Verlander said he’s cherished the extra family time while rehabbing and spoke while tending to his daughter Genevieve, who turned 2 1/2 on Friday. Verlander is throwing a baseball on flat ground at 90 feet and “feeling great,” he said. The original prognosis was that he would be out 12 to 14 months, but Verlander said he’s not rushing his recovery and is trying to follow the checkpoints set out by doctors and therapists.
“It’s one of those surgeries they told me you can’t overpush it, which is against my nature,” Verlander said. “Any time I’ve been injured in the past, it’s like, ‘OK, what can I do to get back as quick as possible?’ This time, it’s like you need to make sure you follow the protocols and not try to get too far ahead of yourself because you can really ruin your whole surgery, and you’re looking at the end of a career.”
Verlander has used the rehab as an opportunity to reset his mind and body, saying he has ranges of motion he hasn’t had in years. He’s attempting to become the 10th known pitcher to come back from Tommy John surgery after undergoing the procedure at 37 years of age or older.
“I’m hitting all the checkmarks you’re supposed to hit,” Verlander said. “They give the same protocols to me they give the 22-year-olds. I feel like my body is still in great shape, my ability to recover is still there. I don’t know if that’s forever. I know I’m raging against the dying of the light and doing everything I possibly can to keep it that way.”
Verlander enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career in 2019 en route to his second career Cy Young Award, making 34 starts and going 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA, 300 strikeouts 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.
“The last season I was healthy, I won the Cy Young,” Verlander said. “Anything on top of that is gravy. I definitely think I can get back to the pitcher that I was [in 2019], at the least.”
Verlander made one start in ’20 after signing a two-year, $66 million extension, something he says “gnaws” at him. He’s a free agent at season’s end but said it’s too early to speculate where he’ll wind up in ’22. He plans to pitch “until the wheels fall off.”
“This was an unfortunate injury no one could have seen coming, but I still do like to earn my keep,” Verlander said. “There’s really been no conversations about anything moving forward. I don’t know why there would be at this point. I think anybody would like to see how my elbow rehab continues to go further down the line. I think I would have to prove I’m healthy before that was even a topic of conversation.”