The remarkable comeback of Justin Verlander

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JUNE 07: Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros reacts to striking out Taylor Trammell #20 of the Seattle Mariners to get out of the sixth inning at Minute Maid Park on June 07, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - JUNE 07: Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros reacts to striking out Taylor Trammell #20 of the Seattle Mariners to get out of the sixth inning at Minute Maid Park on June 07, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /
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Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports /

Furthering the legacy of Justin Verlander this year is his ability to put up a stellar season after making only one start in the previous two campaigns. He’s a shoo-in to win the American League Comeback Player of the Year award but, could he also win the Cy Young at the same time?

Since the Comeback Player of the Year award was started in 1965, there’s a short list of players that have done exactly that: Mike McCormick in 1967, John Denny in 1983, and Cliff Lee in 2008. If you include hitters, there’s an even smaller group that won Comeback Player of the Year and MVP in the same season that includes only Terry Pendleton in 1991 and  Buster Posey in 2012.

McCormick had a strong season in 1967 when he won 22 games and posted a 2.85 ERA in 262.1 innings but this one is a bit of a head-scratcher since he compiled a 3.46 ERA and pitched 216 innings in 1966. John Denny’s 1983 is quite similar to McCormick’s situation and, while he could have been most improved, there’s not much he came back from. The same could be said for Pendleton’s 1991. Perhaps the definition of a comeback has changed over the last 55 years. Either way, these seasons are not in the same category as Verlander’s this year. None had previously been a top-tier player and none had an injury that cost them much, if any, time.

Lee had an atrocious 2007 after being a good pitcher in 2005 and 2006. He came in fourth in the AL Cy Young voting in 2005 after leading the league in win percentage and posting a 3.79 ERA in 202 innings. In 2007, he was awful and had a 6.29 ERA in 97.1 innings and ended up making 10 starts in the minor leagues. He bounced back in 2008 and led the league in wins, ERA, and ERA+ while making his first All-Star team. You can certainly call Lee’s season an impressive comeback and there’s no controversy surrounding his Cy Young award that season. It’s a nice story but, again, nowhere near what Verlander’s doing.

Posey’s 2012 may be the closest comp. In 2010 he won the Rookie of the Year award and was a critical piece as the Giants won the World Series. In May of 2011, Posey suffered an ankle injury after a collision at home plate and his season was over. The event was so influential that it led to a rule change and is referenced in Major League Baseball’s “Collisions at Home Plate” definition. The next season, the 25-year-old returned and posted a .336/.408/.549 line with 24 homers and 103 RBI while playing 148 games, leading the Giants to their second title in three years.

Of these five players, only Posey came back from a serious injury and he did it when he was 25, not 39. Posey ended up missing roughly two-thirds of the season while Verlander has missed pretty much all of two campaigns. Posey’s is an impressive story and part of his amazing legacy as one of the best catchers in his era but, again, it’s just not in the same discussion as what Verlander is doing this season.

There have been a ton of inspirational stories of determination that have led to impressive comebacks. Last year’s AL Comeback Player of the Year Trey Mancini is a great starting point. However, you may have to go out of the sport to find a proper comparison to what Verlander is doing this year. Mario Lemieux (twice) in hockey or George Foreman in boxing might be the closest parallels in recent history in major sports, and their comebacks aren’t that recent.

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There just simply aren’t many times when someone has done what Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander is doing this year, at the age he’s doing it, and after missing so much time. He was likely going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame even if he didn’t pitch this season but this should cement his case to get in on the first ballot.