When Felix Hernandez won the 2010 AL Cy Young with a 13-12 record, it was a watershed event in terms of how award voters weigh various statistics. In the past, Hernandez’ low win total would have all but eliminated him from consideration, but more recently, a growing percentage of the electorate has started to use more advanced measures of performance, or, at the very least, more traditional measures, such as ERA, that aren’t as team-dependent as wins.
Just because Hernandez won last year’s Cy Young, however, doesn’t mean the debate about the true value of wins is over. Many in and around the game still advance the theory that because pitchers factor the score into their pitch selection, more advanced measures of performance, often called peripherals, can become distorted. In a lively Twitter debate, Buster Olney provided a quintessential example of this phenomenon by asking: with two outs and a man on third in the fourth inning, what kind of pitch would Justin Verlander throw in a 3-2 count if his team was winning by four runs?
According to Olney, Verlander would be more apt to throw a fastball in that situation because he would care less about “giving in” than avoiding a walk (i.e., risking a bigger inning by putting another man on base). The clear implication is that Verlander’s ERA would then be distorted because his primary goal wasn’t to prevent a run, but avoid surrendering the lead (i.e., getting the win).
Before testing this theory, it’s worth considering that if Verlander “pitches to the score” than it’s likely others do as well (meaning relative ERA would still be a sound basis for comparison). What’s more, it would also stand to reason that batters “hit to the score” (and maybe defensive players field to the score?). For example, using Olney’s scenario, we might posit that a hitter sitting dead red on 3-2 would try to turn on the pitch instead of take his normal swing. Although taking this approach could theoretically increase the chances of making an out (because the hitter isn’t reacting, but pre-determining his approach), it would also enhance the likelihood of a home run, which would do more to cut into a big deficit. In other words, pitching to the score and hitting to the score could very well cancel out.
Justin Verlander’s Pitch Selection in Full Counts
Note: FB= fastball; SL= slider; CU = curve; CH = change. 3-2 samples are 191 for “all” and 30 for “with 4-run lead”.
Source: fangraphs.com and www.joelefkowitz.com
Putting aside the esoteric portion of the debate, we can examine Verlander’s pitch selection in specific scenarios. According to statistics from Joe Lefkowitz’ PitchF/X Tool, Verlander has thrown 191 pitches with a full count, of which, approximately 83% were fastballs. This represents a significant increase over the 55% fastball rate Verlander has exhibited in all counts. However, that only suggests the Tigers’ right hander pitches to the count, which is something no one disputes (that is, after all, pitching).
Using a sample more refined to meet Olney’s criteria (full count with at least a four-run lead), we find that Verlander almost exclusively throws fast balls. So, does that mean Olney is right about pitching to the score? Not exactly. For starters, Verlander’s 94% fastball rate in such situations isn’t much higher than the 83% rate in all full counts. Furthermore, the fire-balling righty’s fastball ranks as one of the best pitches in the game, based on runs saved (wFB). In other words, when Verlander goes to his fastball, he isn’t giving in. This is further evidenced by the cumulative outcomes of the 30 pitches Verlander has thrown in Olney’s theoretical situation (1-14 with one HR, three walks, one HBP and 12 foul balls).
“Top-10 Pitches” by Runs Saved in 2011
Note: For an explanation of pitch values defined by linear weights, click here.
It’s also worth pointing out the small sample size of potential “pitching to the score” situations. In Verlander’s case, there have only been 14 balls put in play, so even if he wasn’t very successful in these scenarios, they wouldn’t have a meaningful impact on his overall numbers.
Perhaps the best way to really settle this argument would be to ask Verlander how he handles the theoretical scenario, but something tells me the right hander might not want to give that information away. So, instead, let’s see what other notable pitchers think on the subject:
I’ve never had a problem pitching with a big lead. It’s nice to be able to go out there and pitch with a six-spot on the scoreboard.” – Tim Hudson, AP, July 23, 2003
“A four-run lead is great, but the big thing is you don’t want to go out and get too relaxed, too complacent. So you pretend that it’s 1-0, 2-0, and don’t let yourself change your style of pitching.” – Tom Glavine, New York Times, August 15, 1992
“I felt like I was totally in control of the game. When we got the lead, it made things easier. I just pretended like it was a nothing-nothing game.” – Frank Viola, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, October 19, 1987
“It’s a lot easier pitching with a big lead. I could go out and play pitch-and-catch with Richie [catcher Gedman].” – Roger Clemens, AP, June 17, 1986
By no means are the quotes above the definitive word. Undoubtedly, one could find many quotes expressing the opposite sentiment. However, the opinions of these great pitchers, combined with the analysis above, should, at the very least, provide enough caution about making blanket generalizations in support of an argument. Although it’s likely that most pitchers do “pitch to the score” some of the time, those situations are not only few and far between, but there is no evidence to suggest taking such an approach adversely impacts performance. That’s why the best way to evaluate a pitcher involves a comprehensive look at a variety of qualitative and quantitative metrics, rather than a team-based catch all like wins, regardless of what contingency-based argument is used to justify its relative importance.