Noah Syndergaard and Justin Verlander: What to Expect in Their Return from the Tommy John Operation

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By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB writer

Noah Syndergaard and Justin Verlander just got paid. Syndergaard left Mets for Angels on a $ 21 million one-year deal. Verlander re-signed with Astros for $ 25 million.

When they start for their respective teams in 2022, perhaps on opening day, it will have been almost 30 months since they last threw a meaningful trajectory. And with their signings taking place so close together last week, it was hard not to see them as connected.

So I wanted to know: When an established starting pitcher goes into spring training 100 percent back from the Tommy John surgery, but has barely or not yet returned to action, then what can we expect from him that season?

I’m most interested in this question from a workload point of view, as a common reaction to the Verlander and Syndergaard signings was, “That’s a lot of money for 120 innings!” I admit I thought the same thing, so I wanted to find out how many innings pitchers have thrown in their first seasons back after surgery.

Thanks to Jon Roegele’s excellent work, there is an enormously thorough and organized public database of pitchers that have had Tommy John surgery and the timelines associated with their return to the mound. By using this resource, we can narrow down the large list to those who had TJ and returned under similar circumstances as Syndergaard and Verlander.

What are the specific circumstances? The pitchers had to meet the following criteria:

– Had already been established as a starting pitcher in major leagues.

– Made their official MLB back from Tommy John surgery either briefly in September of the season before (à la Syndergaard) or at the start of a season (à la Verlander, provided he keeps the schedule).

(Here I would like to note that these circumstances also apply to three pitchers who could play major roles in the post-season race in 2022: Luis Severino, Dakota Hudson and Mike Clevinger. The following analysis can therefore be remembered when projecting their performance next year as Well, but let’s focus on the smart free agents.)

That meant I would not look at pitch prospects going through TJ and returning to the pitch in minor. I also would not look at pitchers returning in the middle of the season (Dinelson Lamet in 2019, Nathan Eovaldi in 2018, Yu Darvish in 2016). In the context of this exercise, I also excluded pitchers who returned in 2020 because the shortened season did not allow for a “full season” return (e.g. Carlos Rodón).

These criteria left me with 27 names, from Jamie García to Jameson Taillon. On average, these starting pitchers made 21 starts and threw about 132 innings in their first full seasons after TJ. Only 14 of the 27 made at least 28 major league starts, while only eight threw at least 175 innings: Lance Lynn, Jason Vargas, Alex Cobb, Matt Harvey, Drew Hutchison, John Lackey, Shaun Marcum and Jake Westbrook, who topped the list with 202.2 IPs in 2010.

Now that we have a sense of how much they pitched, how well did they pitch? Given the sample size and the huge variation in talent, I do not think it is instructive to compare Syndergaard and Verlander with people like Hutchison or Josh Tomlin. But the peaks of these achievements include Harvey in 2015, Stephen Strasburg in 2012 and the huge Kris Medlen campaign in 2012 (1.57 ERA in 138 IPs).

I focused strictly on the first season back from surgery, not what happened in the pitchers’ careers in the years that followed. Such a distinction is especially important when analyzing people like Harvey and another former Met: Zack Wheeler.

Harvey was excellent in his first year back (2.71 ERA in 189.1 IPs in 2015) before rapidly declining in the years that followed. Wheeler, meanwhile, represents more of a warning story for someone like Syndergaard, as he handled countless ups and downs in both health and performance in 2017, his first year back. Wheeler did not become the Cy Young candidate he is today until several seasons later.

For the Los Angeles Angels, the only thing that matters is the first year. The clock is ticking to get Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani for the off-season, so Syndergaard must deliver immediately.

Another useful parallel for Syndergaard is the recent TJ comeback story: Taillon. By 2021, Taillon came from another Tommy John, after undergoing his first in 2014 while a minor. But he was exactly the same age as Syndergaard and had a similar high-prospect pedigree before surgery. Taillon had some non-arm-related injury hiccups in 2021, but he was otherwise healthy and made 29 starts for the New York Yankees.

Like Syndergaard, Taillon moved from the National League to the American League, and his numbers from his pre-surgical form in 2018 got a small hit, making him an average starting pitcher over his 144.1 IPs, with glimpses of expertise mixed in. . other pitchers in the sample of the same age as Syndergaard also looked good in their return seasons relative to their pre-surgical form: Michael Pineda, Lynn and Cobb.

Both Syndergaard and Verlander have just signed on a truck with US dollars. Both were good pitchers before the operation and both are known for throwing very hard. Both line up in AL West in 2022, and they may well meet several times during the year. (Houston will visit Anaheim in four games from April 7-10, in case you were wondering.)

It is also important to note the differences between Syndergaard and Verlander. First, at almost 39 years old, Verlander is almost a decade older. For reference, do you remember the funny yearbook picture of Syndergaard from his first year in high school?

When the photo of Syndergaard was taken, Verlander had just won the 2006 American League Rookie of the Year. So yes, there is an age difference.

There’s also a talent gap – or at least that was the last time we saw them. In 2019, Verlander won AL Cy Young, while Syndergaard posted his worst season in the major leagues. Not that Thor was actually bad, but he did not look like the perennial ace he seemed to develop into during his first few seasons.

What Syndergaard did in 2019 was to really throw baseball, really hard. It would be easy to beat Syndergaard and Verlander together as Big Dudes Who Throw Hard, but they are clearly two different levels of fireballs.

Before the operation, Syndergaard was the hardest-throwing starting pitcher in baseball. His four-stitch fastball averaged 97.8 mph. In contrast, Verlander threw 59 such hard lanes in 2017, only 23 in 2018 and only seven in 2019. We know Verlander can still reach back and throw a fastball of batsmen when he needs it, but he is not on same level as Syndergaard and has not been for a long time.

The only recent precedent for a starting pitcher who threw close to as hard as Syndergaard before TJ was Strasburg, whose foursome averaged 97.3 mph before his infamous shutdown and operation in 2011. Since returning, Strasburg has had lots of success, but his fast ball has never again topped 96 mph on average. The next closest example is another well-known name: Harvey, who averaged 95.8 mph on his heater before surgery and 95.9 mph in his first year back before the bike fell abruptly in the years that followed.

In our brief glimpse of Syndergaard at the end of 2021, he threw 26 lanes in two games. His fastball averaged 94.2 mph and maxed out at 96.2 mph, and he did not throw a single shooter, which he used to throw 15% to 20% of the time (this was without a doubt his most effective pitch). We want to give Thor the benefit of the doubt and assume he just wanted to get back on a big league hill and shake off the rust, instead of airing it out in these September outings.

The angels must hope that was the case, because Syndergaard might have to make some adjustments if his heater is now more mid-90s than high-90s. Regaining its elite speed will probably be Syndergaard’s biggest challenge on the comeback track.

The biggest challenge Verlander faces is his age. Of the more than 2,000 documented Tommy John operations over the past few decades, very few pitchers had the procedure at an age older than Verlander, and nearly all of them were relievers. The only examples of starting pitchers as old or older than Verlander to get Tommy John were Bronson Arroyo (who was 37) and Jamie Moyer (who was 47!).

They were at the end of their careers, looking for a final comeback. Both threw low-80s before and after surgery – and both were completely destroyed in their return seasons. With all due respect to Arroyo and Moyer, it is unfair to compare Verlander with them.

As for the shortlist of relievers, it is not a promising return. John Franco (41) and Arthur Rhodes (37) both returned from TJ to have a respectable season or two, but the other four – Joe Nathan (40), Jose Contreras (40), Rafael Betancourt (38) and Mike Fetters (38) – made only a handful of excursions, most of which went very poorly.

The time is clearly not on Verlander’s side, but again, we’re talking about Justin Verlander. Yet we have to understand that what he is trying – and the expectations of him to succeed – are completely unprecedented. Verlander said before his Cy Young campaign in 2019 that he wants to pitch until he is 45. It is possible that being operated on has changed his ambitions somewhat, but if he returns and looks closely at his 2019 form in 2022, he can definitely get up to his 40s.

There is certainly far more pressure on Syndergaard. It’s no secret how top-heavy the angels’ payroll is, and his addition only exacerbates that problem. We know they will still use a six-man rotation to accommodate Ohtani, so that’s a way Syndergaard’s laps can be controlled. It’s a bit unclear what the team expects his workload to be – there were some mixed messages after his signing:

However, it is not just about his workload. How Anaheim chooses to optimize his arsenal will also have a big impact on his success. All that said, if he delivers his potential in even 140 innings, it’s great – but still probably not enough to push the Angels into the playoffs.

Houston, meanwhile, remains the class in AL West and boasts far greater pitching depth. Verlander’s return is a huge deal, but it’s closer to a luxury than the desperate turn for high-end pitching, which is the Angels’ signing of Syndergaard.

Overall, I’m more confident of Verlander’s ability to deliver on his big payday than Syndergaard’s, and it seems the market reflected that, given that he got the extra year of guaranteed money in the form of a player option. I think it will help Verlander to be where he is already feeling well, and based on early reporting, it sounds like his stuff is likely to look like his old self, more than with Syndergaard.

As it looks now, it’s hard to know for sure when or if Syndergaard’s clean stuff – once some of the best in the league – will be fully operational in 2022. Either way, both of these signings come with ample pros and cons and has set a high standard for the pitch market the rest of the winter.

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and baseball analyst for FOX Sports. He lives in DC, but is a big Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching KBO, which means he does not get much sleep. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.

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