A Justin Verlander Reunion Probably Won’t Work

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 04: Justin Verlander looks on during a game against the Baltimore Orioles. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 04: Justin Verlander looks on during a game against the Baltimore Orioles. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /
facebooktwitterreddit

Fans floated the idea moments after the Detroit Tigers traded Justin Verlander.

He’ll come back one day. Verlander will go win a World Series or two somewhere else, but then he’ll be back to usher in the next era of competitive Tigers baseball.

It’s a pleasant vision, and one made more plausible when the Detroit Tigers hired A.J. Hinch, Justin Verlander’s manager with the Houston Astros. And then on Friday the venerable and well-connected Lynn Henning offered his thoughts on Twitter:

It’s not uncommon for great players to return to the franchise where they became icons. Ken Griffey Jr. spent his final two years back in Seattle. Gary Carter returned to Montreal for his last season. And after five years in New York, a 42-year-old Tom Glavine gave it one last go in Atlanta.

The narrative fits perfectly, and Detroit Tigers fans would definitely love to see Justin Verlander wear the Old English D again. But there are a lot of reasons to think a reunion won’t happen, or simply won’t work.

Why is Justin Verlander Still Pitching?

Justin Verlander won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2006. He won the MVP in 2011. He has two Cy Young Awards, eight All-Star appearances, and three no-hitters. He won a World Series ring in 2017, and in 2019 he became the 18th member of the 3,000 strikeout club. He’s a Hall-of-Famer.

Justin Verlander has tens of millions of dollars. He is married to a supermodel, and he has an infant daughter. He turns 38 next month, and he is in the early stages of a 12-16 month rehab process that won’t see him throw another competitive pitch until he is 39.

Why is he doing this? What more can he possibly want out of his career?

The obvious answer is that Justin Verlander is insane.

Not insane in the traditional sense, of course. But he clearly possesses the sort of insanely competitive nature we see from athletes like Tom Brady, Roger Federer, Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, and Tiger Woods. It’s not enough for them to simply reach the top of their sport, they must dominate for as long as possible. It’s an affliction, cloaked in virtue.

We know Justin Verlander is a throwback. He may be the last pitcher ever to throw 250+ innings in a single season. Perhaps he wants to get to 300 career Wins, or 4,000 strikeouts? He has said he wants to pitch into his mid-40s so his daughter can see him play.

So the internal motivation is obviously there. But that leads to another question…

Why Would Justin Verlander Return to the Detroit Tigers?

We know why Detroit Tigers fans want him to return, and the team would definitely be on board for the ticket sales alone, but what exactly is in it for Justin Verlander?

Yes, Verlander has roots here, and he has been vocal about how much he appreciates Tigers fans. But the Detroit Tigers probably aren’t going to be very good in 2022. If he’s interested in racking up more wins, or competing for more titles, he’s going to have many better options. He could return to Houston, or try to conquer New York or Los Angeles.

If Verlander truly intends to pitch into his mid-40s, then a potential reunion with Detroit may have to wait until his next contract, which could be in 2024.

There probably isn’t going to be some hometown discount for the Detroit Tigers next offseason. If they want to bring Justin Verlander back home, they’re going to have to spend money. And that brings us to our final question…

What Do You Pay Justin Verlander?

The easy answer for fans is “whatever he wants.” But the real answer isn’t quite that easy, and it has nothing to do with Detroit’s recent run of thriftiness. Justin Verlander was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball before he was injured, but in 2022 he’ll be a 39-year-old returning from Tommy John surgery. There just isn’t any kind of model for a situation like this.

Baseball analyst Joe Roegele created and maintains the Tommy John Surgery List, a spectacularly thorough accounting of amateur and professional baseball players who have had the surgery. As of this writing the list is nearly 1,950 names long. And of that giant list, how many pitchers were 37 or older when they had their surgery?

Nine.

Justin Verlander will be the 10th. Here’s how the rest fared after their procedure:

The results are ugly, though the sample size is small. There may be dozens of older pitchers who could have had surgery and come back to perform well, but they had to good sense to just retire and enjoy their lives. Most of the above pitchers were relievers, and the two starters, Moyer and Arroyo, combined for a 6.70 ERA in their 24 outings.

Betting against Justin Verlander seems like a good way to lose money, but time is undefeated. At some point his body simply won’t allow him to pitch at a high level anymore, and for all teams know, that time may have already come.

So again, what do you pay someone like that? Verlander was making $33 million a year with Houston, and he was worth it. He’ll almost certainly hold some form of showcase prior to the 2022 season, and if he looks good he may still command $20 million or more.

Will the Detroit Tigers be willing to swim in the deep end of the pool again? Will they spend enough on the rest of the roster to make the team competitive?

And what about the alternative? What if Justin Verlander comes back and looks awful? Tommy John surgery has been remarkably successful, but it isn’t perfect. Nothing would be sadder for Detroit Tigers fans than to see their hero return, only to top out at 90-mph and get shellacked every fifth day.

It’s a lot of fun to dream about a franchise icon coming home and leading his team to the promised land. If anyone can pull that off it’s Justin Verlander. But sometimes it’s best to just leave those dreams in our imagination, where reality can’t get to them.