Justin Verlander Is Stronger Than Ever
AT AGE 40, Justin Verlander is one of the oldest players in Major League Baseball. And at age 40, Justin Verlander is still one of the very best players in Major League Baseball. So when it came time to cash in on what may turn out to be his last big free agency payday—he's coming off his third Cy Young Award and second World Series championship—he wanted to hear all his options.
Yet as much planning as anyone can try to do, most who've experienced free agency would probably tell you the same thing: it comes down to the 11th hour. That was the case for Verlander, who was at his home office in Florida fielding calls, with his wife, model Kate Upton, in another room. There were a lot of voices in his ear, but one ultimately came through clearest: New York Mets owner Steve Cohen, who was aggressive and motivated to get a deal done. "I walked out and told Kate, 'I'm pretty sure we're signing with the Mets,'" he says over Zoom with a grin on his face in mid February. "And she was excited to say the least."
Turns out, the entire Verlander/Upton family—Justin, Kate, and their four-year-old daughter—are excited about the upcoming season, which will be Verlander's 18th in Major League Baseball but first in The Big Apple as one of the league's elder statesmen.
As he gets acclimated to a new team, new teammates, and a new city, the rest of Major League Baseball will also be acclimating to several new rules, including the implementation of a pitch clock and the banning of the shift. Verlander has been in the league through all sorts of eras, witnessing the rise of analytics—and he understands both sides of the conversation.
"There's a better game of baseball than the one that's been played the last few years," he says. "I've seen both. I liked a lot of the old school stuff, but you have to continually adapt."
Spoken diplomatically, as someone who's been through the Major League Baseball ringer—coming back last season after his second major injury in the last five years—would. Below, Men's Health spoke with Verlander about how he's crafted a dominant pitching body as one of the oldest players in the league, who the toughest hitters to face off against are, and how coming back from major injuries actually made him stronger.
Men's Health: I have to say, as a Yankee fan, this is easily the most excited I've ever been to see you.
Justin Verlander: Yeah, I'm not so much against you guys anymore unless it's the big, big games.
That's a great place to start. Obviously this has been a huge off-season for you. What's been most exciting since the World Series?
It was a bit hectic, honestly. You go on this crazy rollercoaster of emotions. You win the World Series, and then you decompress for a little bit, and my wife, my daughter, and I had a couple trips planned, and dancing around those trips was all this turmoil of where we were going to be playing next year. On one hand it's super exciting—the unknown—and on the other hand, it's super stressful.
Once I signed with the Mets, that's when things got really exciting for us. I had actually lived in New York for an off-season with Kate when we first started dating, so I know the city pretty well, and she loves New York City.
This is now the second time you're switching teams in your career. What's the most difficult part about that?
Getting acclimated. Trying to get to know my new teammates, and to get to know everybody's personalities. One thing that's changed about me a lot since when I first got traded to Houston is my personal growth in life. I've got my daughter now, who's four years old, and she's really changed me a ton. I mean, look, I'm 40 years old now. I've grown up a lot, especially since my days in Detroit. And so I'm trying to take that growth and bring it into the locker room, where before I used to say I felt like I was a race horse with blinders on. I just need to do what I need to do to be the best I can.
As I've gotten a bit older and more mature, I've been able to take those blinders off and get to know guys on a more intimate level, and help them a bit more. I also have a lot of feel now for what makes a locker room good. I've already heard wonderful things about the Mets locker room—don't get me wrong, I don't think it needs a big revamp or anything. There are just sometimes little things I can see, but I'm hopeful I can help add to that.
You're coming up on year 18. You've had an unprecedented level of health and success for such a long period of time, and I'm curious what you see as your key to maintaining that, especially through the ups and downs with injuries along the way.
Adaptability, not being too close-minded, actively searching out new information, and using all of that and knowing my body. You can overdo it obviously with any information, but particularly when you're changing things with your body. So I'm actively always searching for new ideas to extend my athletic career. I'm not afraid to try stuff, but I'm not afraid to just ditch it very quickly if I don't think it feels right.
One of the things I look back most appreciatively of is my first major injury, which was a core injury. It was one of the worst moments of my career, but now I look back quite fondly on it, ironically, because of what I learned through that process and how it helped me to actually extend my career rather than shorten it.
And the tale of the tape will be told longer than right now, but I'm hopeful that what I learned through my Tommy John process [during the 2020 and 2021 seasons] will also be a moment I look back at and be like, I'm so thankful for that time. You're obviously never thankful for an injury, but I'm thankful for that time and the lessons life taught me during that time that probably allowed me to extend my career further than had I not had surgery.
Being open to new information; that sounds silly to say, but a lot of athletes are scared or worried to try new stuff, because you don't really know how it's going to impact you. But if you don't change, you're probably not going to make it too long.
Would you say having that experience helped you mentally to work through the Tommy John surgery?
One thing that helped me definitely was having the understanding that my body recovers pretty well from surgery. I was able to wholeheartedly buy in and not have these concerns in the back of my mind like, am I going to recover from this? Will I be okay?
There's an 89 percent return to previous form when you have Tommy John surgery. Those are the numbers they let you know, and in my mind, I skewed the numbers as far as I could to give myself a positive mindset to 95 percent. I thought that the fact that I had come through a major surgery before and adapted quite well to it really showed that I probably would be able to do that again.
How important has the mental aspect been in both coming back from injuries and also keeping your same level of success season after season?
I keep my head down, work hard, and have the mentality to put in the work and it doesn't take a toll. That is just the way my mind works. That's the only thing I know: just embed myself in the routine, and see how far this ride can last. Never stop trying to adapt and stay at the top of my game, no matter how old I am.
Before I had Tommy John surgery everybody's like, "What are you doing? Why don't you retire?" Or, "Not many people have ever come back from surgery at this age." And that's just outside noise, man. I know how I feel, and how much hard work I've put in, and what a disservice I felt like it would be to myself and what a bad example to my daughter it would be to not find out how far I can take this thing.
Obviously you just signed a two-year deal. Do you have any sort of cap, like I don't want to keep playing when I'm 50, or will you just go as long as you can?
I've never put a cap on it because I've never wanted to sell myself short. I feel like, god, when I was 22 years old, I'd have been like if I could play until 40...and then here I am still trudging along. I've always just figured that the game will tell me when it's time.
I'm going to put you on the spot really quick. Who's the most terrifying hitter to face right now? Not a consensus—for you, Justin Verlander.
Yeah. Who strikes fear into your heart?
OK. Who comes closest?
I'm sorry. That's the other side about analytics: you can always find somebody's weakness. The guy I have the most fun facing is Mike Trout. It's just this wonderful dance, where he has a good idea of what I'm going to do and I know what he's trying to do. And we've had some fun at-bat interactions, where he'll just peek up and give me a little smirk if I did something a little different, or if a pitch was really close that he took, and it was called a ball. And we got to face each other a ton when I was in Houston and he's gotten better and better and better every year. I really enjoy that.
Another guy who has a good back and forth is Juan Soto. He really thinks along with the pitcher. For me, the pitcher-batter interaction is the best when there's this dance going on where he's trying to counteract what I'm trying to do, and I'm trying to counteract that. And when you get down to the minutiae of it, the best in the world adapts so much faster than everybody else. When you're facing a hitter who is adapting just as quick as you are, it's amazing how quick things go.
What does work-life balance mean to you?
Boy, I mean, it's difficult. Our game requires a lot of time away from our family and it was one of the best blessings I've ever had during my Tommy John rehab. It was the Covid year. I wasn't allowed to even be with the team, so I got to spend all of that time with my family. I would do my rehab in the morning and then have every day with my wife and daughter. And it was an amazing experience. To say it was a silver lining of my surgery would be not doing it justice. It was one of the best times in my life, ironically, even though it was professionally one of the worst.
So it's something I'm constantly aware of trying to balance, whether it's leaving for the field a little later on days I don't have to do anything, or leaving the field early on a day game. I'll say that Kate does an incredible job of trying to work with my schedule and make plans that I can be involved in around this ridiculously difficult schedule. If we have an off day, we try to make something of it. Just make these special moments as much as we can.
There are a lot of changes coming to the game this year. As one of the elder statesmen in Major League Baseball, how do you see the game going forward?
It's a drastically different game now than when I first started out. I mean, analytics has really taken such a foothold in the game when it really wasn't present back then. It has its positives and negatives. The banning of the shift, the idea of that is to incentivize more contact, which I appreciate. The game is better when there's a two strike approach. Guys shorten up, put the ball in play, try to get a base hit. There's just more action.
The pitch clock? Look, if it can speed up the game by 20, 30 minutes for the fans, and not change the core of the game, that would be a good thing for baseball.
I see what they're trying to accomplish with most of these rules, and I hope it works. There's a better game of baseball than the one that's been played the last few years. I've seen both, to your point. I liked a lot of the old school stuff, but like I was talking about with my body—you have to continually adapt. There's too much data and numbers out there now to ignore. You have to use that data to your advantage.
You've won an MVP, you've won three Cy Youngs, and you've won the World Series twice. With as impressive a resume as you have, what goal do you have for the future?
It's going to sound corny, but it's the absolute truth: I don't play for any of those reasons. I genuinely love the game. I love competition. I love putting in the work behind the scenes and having it play out. I mean, god, what a fulfilling year last year was, to put in a year and a half of work from my Tommy John surgery and have it come out in that much success on the field. You don't know what's going to happen. All you can do is put in the work and see what happens.
I was asked the question today in the Mets locker room: "Are there goals you want to achieve?" And of course there are some big shiny goals out there. Would I love to get to 300 wins? Absolutely. Would I love to get to 4,000 strikeouts? Absolutely. That would be incredible. But I don't put that out there, even in my own mind. That's an external motivator. I'm an internal motivator.
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