Home Sports Justin Verlander: The Astros’ Ace and Sleep Guru

Justin Verlander: The Astros’ Ace and Sleep Guru

It was early May 2018 and Alex Bregman, the Houston Astros’ star third baseman, had only one home run on the season. His teammate Justin Verlander, one of the best pitchers of this generation, noticed Bregman’s low power and hints of fatigue, and asked how many hours Bregman had slept the night before.

Six, Bregman answered. And his normal amount? Six, as well.

The responses bewildered Verlander. He promptly told Bregman, 25, that he slept at least 10 hours a night and said Bregman should start getting more hours himself.

“I felt like that’s overdoing it,” Bregman said. “You shouldn’t sleep that much.

“Then I started sleeping that much and, next thing you know, I hit 30 homers after that.”

If Verlander doesn’t throw another pitch, he has a strong case for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame: He is an eight-time All-Star, won the 2011 American League M.V.P. and Cy Young Awards, and helped the Astros to the 2017 World Series title.

Yet at 36, Verlander is still pumping fastballs in the mid-90s and relishing a late-career resurgence with the Astros. He has a sterling 2.98 E.R.A. and has allowed the fewest walks and hits per inning (0.813 WHIP) among major league starting pitchers for the second straight season. On Tuesday in Cleveland, he will take the mound as the A.L.’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.

One of the secrets to Verlander’s dominance at this age: a lot of sleep. He regularly gets nearly 50 percent more than the average American’s 6.8 hours (per a 2013 Gallup poll), and has added one more unofficial title to his résumé: Astros’ sleep consultant.

“That’s Verlander: the Tom Brady of baseball,” said Bregman, comparing his teammate to the New England Patriots quarterback who, with plenty of sleep and an eccentric diet and fitness routine, won his sixth Super Bowl title last season at 41.

Verlander aims for 10 hours a night. “And if I need more, I’m not afraid to just sleep more,” he said. Sometimes eight or nine hours leaves him refreshed. Other times he gets 11 or even 12.

To help him doze longer, Verlander uses blockout blinds. When there aren’t any in his hotel room, he uses pillows to pin the shades shut. He also puts his cellphone on silent or on airplane mode to avoid distractions. His alarm clock? “Me,” he said.

“I’ve always been good at listening to my body my whole career,” he added later. “I just kinda do what makes me feel good. That sounds pretty simplistic but when it really comes down to it I think it’s the best way. Your body will tell you what to do.”

That was the case even after his daughter was born in November. Although his schedule was different in the off-season, Verlander praised his wife, the model Kate Upton, who has some help caring for their daughter, for allowing him to recover as much as needed during the season.

Verlander is also careful about other aspects of his body. He focuses on joint mobility and recovery rather than lifting weights during the season. He uses the elliptical or stationary bicycle as cardiovascular exercises to avoid the wear on joints that running causes. He only takes anti-inflammatory medication, common for pitchers, before a start, he said, because he prefers to let his body naturally figure out any soreness every other day. He eats whatever he wants as long as it is not processed.

ImageAlex Bregman, right, said he started sleeping more after listening to Verlander’s recommendations.

CreditBob Levey/Getty Images

But sleep is his foundation for all of it. For professional athletes, quality sleep provides crucial restorative effects and naturally restocks the body’s testosterone and growth hormone, said Neomi Shah, a sleep medicine doctor at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

“It’s a legal way to improve athletic performance,” she said. “And it goes beyond it, too, in terms of better well-being and an ability to make decisions.”

Verlander made it a priority based on his own experiences and what he learned about recovery, but athletes’ travel schedules and constant time zone changes can make it hard to sleep that well consistently.

“I’d love to get 10 hours of sleep a night,” said Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner, 35, who is in his 12th season. “I’d love to go back to sleep right now for about three, four more hours.”

Gardner was speaking before a recent day game that followed a night game, a quick turnaround that happens often in baseball. After a 7 p.m. game, he said, players typically do not leave the stadium until 11 p.m. and often struggle to fall asleep until the wee hours because of adrenaline. They then have to be back at the stadium in the morning for a 1 p.m. game.

Baseball’s packed 162-game schedule presents unique challenges, but there is a growing focus on sleep across many sports. Many elite athletes, from Venus Williams and Roger Federer on pro tennis tours to LeBron James in the N.B.A., have said they sleep at least 10 hours a night. That was several hours more than some baseball players polled for this article.

Verlander’s habits are so well known by his teammates that he has become a sounding board on the topic.

Bregman was initially reluctant to sleep more because he thought he would be missing out on vital leisure or practice time. But now, Bregman, the A.L.’s starting third baseman in the All-Star Game, said he was getting 10 hours of sleep a night, often from 2 a.m. after night games until noon.

“I feel way better,” Bregman said recently, before laughing. “Today, I’m a little grumpy because I only got nine. My mom is in town.”

One of Verlander’s sleep disciples is still struggling, though. Outfielder Michael Brantley, also a starter for the A.L. All-Star team, said he and Verlander talk all the time about strategies for improving his troublesome sleep.

“I’ve tried everything under the sun to be a better sleeper but I guess it’s not in my deck of cards,” he said.

Brantley, 32, certainly wants to increase his rest but said he struggles to get back to sleep once he wakes up. “I don’t want the world to pass me by while I’m sleeping,” he said. But when Brantley somehow manages to get even eight hours of sleep in a night, he is so thrilled that he runs to tell Verlander.

“I know when I get a full night’s sleep, I feel better,” Brantley said. “If you can do it every single night, I know he’s feeling great.”