Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander won his third American League Cy Young Award on Thursday, joining a distinguished club with fewer than a dozen members throughout baseball history. He did so unanimously. And he did so under unprecedented circumstances -- as a 39-year-old coming off Tommy John surgery, which kept him off a major league mound for most of the past two years.
It was all rooted in positive thinking.
When Verlander decided to surgically repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in September 2020, he thought not about his age but about a percentage: 89%. That, he told MLB Network before being announced as the winner, was the rate at which pitchers eventually return to their prior selves after navigating the 12- to 18-month rehab from Tommy John surgery. He thought about how well his body responded to the core surgery he underwent in 2014, tricking himself into believing it bought him an extra handful of percentage points. And he thought about how he was the best pitcher in the AL as recently as 2019.
"I will always kind of remember this Cy Young as looking back at the growth of me as a father and as a person and just also the rehab and all the hard work that went into the rehab, and just how much I was committed to, 'It was going to go well, and I was going to come back and be me,'" Verlander said on a conference call after claiming the award. "Positive affirmations only take people so far, obviously, so to actually have it happen I think will just be something that I'll always remember."
Verlander, who recently helped the Astros capture their second World Series championship in five years, received all 30 first-place votes for the AL Cy Young Award by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. The 30 second-place votes were split between Dylan Cease of the Chicago White Sox (14), Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels (nine) and Alek Manoah of the Toronto Blue Jays (seven). Sandy Alcantara of the Miami Marlins took all of the first-place votes for the National League version, making this the second time that both Cy Young winners were unanimous (Bob Gibson and Denny McLain also did it in 1968).
Verlander, who also won in 2011 and 2019, joins a list of 10 others who have captured at least three Cy Youngs. Seven of them (Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton, Greg Maddux, Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez, Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver) are in the Hall of Fame. Two others (Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer) will be eventually. And the other (Roger Clemens) hasn't been inducted because of his ties to performance-enhancing drugs.
Verlander will someday be enshrined in Cooperstown -- but first he needs to decide which team he'll finish his career with. Verlander opted out of the $25 million salary he would have earned in 2023 and is perceived to be seeking a deal similar to the three-year, $130 million contract Scherzer signed with the New York Mets last offseason. Verlander said Astros owner Jim Crane, who recently parted ways with James Click as his general manager and has been more hands-on with baseball-operations decisions, was in touch via text message recently and communicated his interest in retaining Verlander.
"I'm not a negative person, so I don't want to sit here and say maybe I won't be back because it's been a wonderful ride and I don't know what's going to happen, so I'm not gonna sit here and pretend to know," Verlander said. "I'm just going to be in a situation where the market will dictate itself. We'll see what happens. Obviously there's a lot of people that are interested. Jim understands that. Based on our conversation, he completely understands that there's a lot of people that are potentially interested in my services, including the Astros, and we'll see what happens."
Verlander led the AL in wins (18) and led the majors in both ERA (1.75) and WHIP (0.83) in 2022, fronting a deep Astros pitching staff that helped secure a championship.
Verlander -- 39 years and 227 days old on the last day of the regular season -- is the fourth-oldest Cy Young winner and the second-oldest pitcher to lead the majors in ERA, topped only by a 43-year-old Clemens in 2005. Verlander's ERA was the best by a pitcher who made a minimum of 25 starts in his age-39-or-older season since earned runs became official in 1913, and it was the lowest by an AL pitcher in a full season -- at any age -- since Pedro Martinez had a 1.74 ERA in 2000.
Verlander completed at least six innings in 22 of his 28 starts and accumulated 175 innings during the regular season, striking out 185 batters and walking only 29. He followed with an up-and-down performance in the ensuing postseason but overcame shaky command to contribute five innings of one-run ball against the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 5 of the World Series, a major step in ultimately attaining his second title.
Verlander's third Cy Young came in the most unlikely of ways -- near the end of his career, on the heels of major elbow surgery. He became the second non-rookie ever to make a minimum of 15 starts and post a sub-2.00 ERA despite not pitching in the majors the previous season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The other was Fred Toney, who had a 1.58 ERA for the 1915 Cincinnati Reds after pitching in the minor leagues the previous year.
Verlander felt elbow soreness throughout the rehab process and into the regular season. He wondered if it would linger throughout the summer. And then suddenly, going into his fifth start in the first week of May, it stopped. His elbow had adapted to the stress of pitching in a major league game again.
"I just felt like myself," Verlander said. "And the moment that I felt normal and like myself, pain free, able to recover like I always have, I think my mindset just completely shifted to, 'OK, I am the pitcher I've always been.' That level of pitching, when I'm healthy, has always been quite high. I didn't anticipate it ending in the Cy Young. I don't try to put those expectations on myself. But I knew that I had the opportunity to go out and have a wonderful season."