I’m not breaking any news pointing out that Justin Verlander pitches better in later innings than he does early in games. A prominent YouTuber got his break analyzing that very phenomenon four years ago. Here’s a post from ten years ago outlining the same issue. It’s almost common knowledge at this point that Verlander is one of the few pitchers in MLB who pitches better as the game progresses, a throwback that bucks the trends of modern starting pitching.
Opposing teams seem to know this. In Verlander’s first start of the season, the Tigers tattooed Verlander for back-to-back home runs from Riley Greene and Javy Báez in the first inning. Greene’s home run off a wicked curveball looked impressive, but the Báez home run looked worrisome, as Verlander left a 94.8 MPH fastball belt-high to a free-swinging batter looking to get to the pitcher early. These weren’t bad pitches, but they also weren’t his best pitches.
Those came on the last two fastballs he threw that game. On pitch number 77, Verlander got Greene to foul off a 96.6 MPH fastball, his fastest pitch of the night. And on pitch number 79, his final pitch of the night, he ended the inning on a fastball with 2503 RPM, only his third fastball of the night that eclipsed 2500 RPM. Like he’s done his entire career, he saved his best stuff for last.
And the first start wasn’t an anomaly. In his second start against the Reds, Verlander gave up first inning hits to Jonathan India and Jake Fraley on 92 and 94 MPH fastballs, respectively, the second one spinning at a measly 2274 RPM. The Fraley double came within inches of leaving the yard, threatening a second first-inning run off Verlander for the second-straight start. This wasn’t his best stuff, but you can probably guess when it appeared.
That was on pitch 103, his second-to-last of the night, when Verlander got Nick Senzel to foul off a 97 MPH fastball, his fastest of the night. But he wasn’t just good towards the end. In between innings 2-7, Verlander only allowed the Reds one baserunner and zero hits, completely shutting down the Reds while the Mets’ offense gave him the Jacob deGrom treatment. It was vintage stuff.
This leads to some funny stats in a microscopic sample size. Verlander sports a 15.81 FIP in first innings this season, giving up four of his seven total hits, all three of his total runs, and both of his home runs, all leading to a laughable 13.50 ERA. The second time through the order, Verlander has given up only three hits and zero runs to eighteen batters. The third time, he’s allowed zero runners on base and struck out five of his eight batters. None of this info is meaningful with Verlander only having thrown twelve innings this season, but it does continue a career-long trend for the future Hall-of-Famer.
Throughout his career, Verlander’s first-inning FIP has eclipsed his overall FIP in eleven of his sixteen full seasons pitched. He consistently walks more batters, racks up fewer strikeouts, and gives up more runs in the first inning than at any point in the game. Pitching better as the game progresses has allowed him to remain effective even at 40 years old, and it presents a huge advantage in an era where starters rarely see batters more than two times through a lineup. There exists somewhat of an analytical argument as to why he should pitch better in first innings since there is no inning he pitches in more often, but I’m not going to tell literally Justin Verlander how to pitch. His ramp-up is part of what makes him great this far into his career, and the Mets should expect a great season from their new ace if this is the quality he brings to every start.
And while no one should be concerned that 2023 Verlander looks much like the old Verlander, Mets fans should still keep an eye on this trend. One reason why Verlander has historically been able to save his best stuff for last is because early-game Verlander has still presented above-average quality. It’s too early to say that’s not the case anymore (he just won the Cy Young, after all), but if first-inning meatballs like the ones he threw to Báez and Fraley become the norm, no one should pencil in a shutout every time he gets the start. Justin Verlander starts are still must-watch TV, but maybe it’s advisable to tune in a little late, just in case.