The Reality and Absurdity of Pitching To the Score

First a golf question: You are a golfer facing two putts. The putts are exactly the same. Exactly. They are 20 footers. Uphill. Same weather conditions. Same wind. Same green. You correctly read both putts as left-edge, meaning that if you putt the ball at the proper speed toward the left edge of the hole, it will gently break right into the cup. We are talking about identical putts.

Except for this:

Putt No. 1 happens when you and a friend are goofing around on the golf course, and the putt is to clinch double bogey.

Putt No. 2 is at the U.S. Open and if you make it, you magically win the championship.

I’m sure you already have a thought on this -- someone brought it up to me, and I did. Let’s look at the two situations logically. The buddy putt, you will be relaxed and loose and free, which is obviously a good thing. No pressure. No crowd watching. On the other hand, you probably will not lock in on this putt, not focus too deeply, not put much effort into making it.

The U.S. Open putt is the opposite. You will obviously put all of your energy and focus on the putt. You will obviously try your hardest. But the crowd, the moment, the intensity would be pretty overwhelming. You might second-guess your read. You might be overwhelmed by nerves. You might find it hard to empty your mind from all sorts of unhelpful thoughts.

You probably have a strong opinion about which putt you would make (or neither, or both) … but that’s actually not the question.

The question is this: How do you think you would FEEL about making one putt or the other one?

Here’s my feeling: If I made the first putt, the putt with my buddy, I’d probably not think much about it. I got lucky. I had a nice little moment on an otherwise lousy hole. I might get to brag about it to a friend. I certainly would not take from this that I have courage or daring or guts or anything like that.

If I make the second putt, though, I pitched to the score. There’s absolutely no question about that. I faced down my fears, I overcame my doubts, I made the putt against all odds and with the most intense pressure howling in my face. If I make that putt, I undoubtedly will make conclusions about myself, my constitution, my mettle, my strength of character. I’ll decide I’m a pretty amazing guy.

You might have heard about the great little debate on the MLB Network between Brian Kenny and Harold Reynolds. They started to argue about whether or not pitching wins are overrated as a statistic -- and check out the poll numbers on the bottom right-hand corner! Yikes! -- and it rather quickly devolved into a talk-over-each-other discussion about CC Sabathia and pitching to the score.

Pitching to the score -- the idea that a pitcher reaches for something more in high leverage situations and tends to cruise along carelessly when the score is 9-2 -- usually comes up in the context of Jack Morris. There are many, many people who think Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame, despite his 3.90 ERA, which would be the highest ERA in the Hall of Fame. The Morris supporters have for years claimed that his high ERA is an illusion, that Morris gave up many meaningless runs in games that weren’t close but he was consistently brilliant when the situation called for brilliance. As evidence, they can point to his relatively high win percentage (.577 -- which would place him middle of the pack in the Hall), the praise of teammates and opponents, and, of course, his glorious Game 7 in the 1991 World Series.

As counter-evidence, though, there are dozens and dozens of statistical studies that search and search but cannot find any evidence at all that Morris pitched better in close games, won more than his share of close games or could turn on the juice when he needed it most. Well, there were certain YEARS when he did seem to show some pitch-to-the-score tendencies. In 1982, for instance, hitters hit just .187 against him in high leverage situations, a much lower average than in other situations. But the next three seasons, batters hit much better in those high leverage situations, culminating in 1985 when hitters hit .210 against Morris in low-pressure moments, but jumped up to .276 when the game was on the line.

Sabathia is a better pitcher than Morris was (in that he gives up fewer runs in a higher scoring environment) but there are obviously many similarities. They are both brig men (Morris, it’s easy to forget, is 6-foot-3). Both challenged hitters with hard pitches. Both were/are workhorses -- consistently among league leaders in complete games and innings pitched. Both are admired by teammates and opponents for their competitive nature and consistency. Also, they have both spent most of their time on really good teams that score a lot of runs, which helps that win percentage.

And when you throw all of of that together, you can hear the sirens for a “Myth Watch” -- that is to say conditions are favorable for the development of severe myth-making.

Sabathia is a really, really good pitcher -- well on his way to the Hall of Fame -- who strikes out a lot of hitters, doesn’t walk many, has been good at limiting home runs and stretching out his starts. He typically holds teams to three or fewer runs in the six or seven or eight or nine innings he pitches. When you consider that the Yankees average 5.8 runs per Sabathia start, well, yeah, you can see how that’s going to lead to a lot of celebrations and Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” over the Yankee Stadium loudspeaker. This is simple but brutally effective math.

But that kind of math is clinical and antiseptic. It doesn’t capture the awesomeness of CC Sabathia, a huge guy with a fun personality and a thrilling pitching style. So, Harold Reynolds (who I like very much) and many others want to talk about the magic and valor of CC Sabathia. That means, yep: Pitching to the score.* It’s not enough to say that Sabathia is usually good at limiting runs while the Yankees are usually good at scoring them. Sabathia must be granted superpowers, a cosmic ability to win 1-0 whenever the situation demands it. Of course, his ERA is not 0.00 -- he does give up runs, more runs sometimes than decidedly non-pitch-to-the-score guys like Felix Hernandez or Cliff Lee or Jered Weaver or Matt Cain -- but like with Morris’ ERA, there’s an easy way out: You simply say he gives up the runs when they matter the least.

*Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron, in case you are curious, has done a great job here breaking down the statistical story. It shows pretty convincingly that Sabathia does not appear to pitch to the score.**

**Editor’s note: Let me rephrase this a little bit -- what Cameron shows is that Sabathia does not seem to pitch more effectively when the score is close or the situation at higher leverage. Of course pitchers do change their styles somewhat depending on the situation. Of course pitchers throw differently on a 3-1 count than an 0-2 count. They will pitch differently the fourth time they face a batter than the first three. It’s a game of constant adjustments and subtle but very real complexities. It’s not right to reduce that to nothing. But this question of pitching to the score is not one of style but of effectiveness. And, again and again, it is shown that while pitchers may throw fewer walks in low leverage situations, while they may strike out batters more when pumped up in high leverage, when you total it up one style seems to be no more effective than the other.

In the Kenny-Reynolds Debates, Brian spent some time piercing the sheer illogic of pitching to the score: He asks the simple question of why a pitcher would want to give up runs when the score isn’t close. It reminded me of John Updike’s brilliant response to those who said that Ted Williams wasn’t a clutch hitter:

Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance -- since the reference point of most individual games is remote and statistical -- always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not only by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art. Insofar as the clutch hitter is not a sportswriters myth, he is a vulgarity, like a writer who writes only for money.

If there was a pitcher who really and truly pitched to the score … he too would be a vulgarity. Everyone on his team would despise him. He’d be out there goofing off when the game isn’t close, turning blowouts into nail-biters (when, I suppose, the pitch-to-the-score gene would kick in), only unveiling his real talents in the biggest moments. We call such athletes head cases, and they never last long in any sport. If Tom Watson only made the chip when it was to win the U.S. Open, he’d never have won the U.S. Open.

I understand why people want to grant Morris and Sabathia the power to pitch to the score, but iI guess my biggest problem with it is that, in so many ways, it detracts from their true greatness. Both took the ball. Both overcame those days when they weren’t feeling right, when their arm ached, when their minds were blurry. Both pitched every fifth day, almost without fail, and you could COUNT on them, whether it was in Cleveland in April or Kansas City in July or Yankee Stadium in September. You could count on them. Sometimes, they’d be brilliant. Sometimes, they’d be average. Sometimes they’d be lousy. And this was not entirely in their control. But however they pitched, they’d be out there again five days later.

I find that so much more admirable than a pitcher who can only find his best under the brightest lights and surrounded by the loudest fans.

Not that I even believe such a pitcher exists.

I understand why so many people believe in the pitching to the score theme. We all would like to believe we are at our best when the situation demands it. And the successes we have in those demanding situations just confirms the belief. If I struck out a hitter with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a 1-0 game, I’m sure I’d believe I was pretty special. I’d believe that I just reached deeper. I’d believe I pitched to the score. And nobody would ever be able to convince me otherwise.