Mood Music - Spanish Castle Magic by Jimi Hendrix
A lot of stupid* things have been written about pitching to the score, causing the majority of saber nerds like me to put the guy who pitches to the score in the same pile as the twenty-game winner and the middle-of-the-order RBI man. This post could be some more stupid writing on the subject, as there's really no way to directly measure or definitively prove anything.
*Jack Morris had a 3.98 ERA in games in which he had two or fewer runs of support (3.90 career ERA). Batters OPS'd .695 against him in 2861 career high leverage plate appearances (.693 career OPS against). Feel free to continue casually slamming him when pitching to the score is inevitably used to justify his inclusion in The Special Museum.
What bothers me the most about the way pitching to the score has been classically presented is very similar to the issue that I take with the clutch moniker. Let's say that Alex Rodriguez hits a home run in a blowout game. You can't put a home run in the fridge and save it for later, so wouldn't you want a player to be doing everything they can no matter what the score is?
Conversely, if a pitcher is going to give up five runs because they've been spotted a six run lead, isn't that a bad thing? Shouldn't they be trying to avoid letting the other team back in the game, not mailing it in because they've got a little bit of a cushion?
The idea that pitchers actively control their effectiveness based on the game situation seems to be suspect. And if it exists at all, the proper response would seem to be bonking them on the head and telling them to stop half-assing it in blowouts, not glorifying them for being savvy veterans.
With all of that said, I have no doubt that pitching to the score is a real thing. As much as it can be said that every player should be giving maximum effort at all times, there is no way that there won't be lapses. It would also make sense that these lapses will be more common in 9-1 games in August. In addition to somewhat murky human element conjecture, there will be changes in strategy that are a function of the score. Pitchers being left in or taken out, defensive substitutions, defensive strategies, aggressiveness on the basepaths, and throwing Jose Bautista a 3-1 fastball seem like obvious functions of the score.
I bring this up because in 2011, Yankees starters pitched to a 3.41 ERA in games when they got two or fewer runs of support (4.18 ERA otherwise), and batters OPS'd .652 against them in 1301 high leverage plate appearances (.721 OPS against overall). This probably means nothing, but it might not!
One of B-Ref's pitching splits divides between 0-2 runs of support, 3-5 runs of support, and 6+ runs of support. Here are American League pitchers over the last ten years:
That is a lot less pronounced than I would have expected. Now, the three groups are completely arbitrary and this by no means debunks the concept. There does seem to be some correlation, even if we can't directly measure a trend. Wouldn't that be expected though, even without pitching to the score? Wouldn't a hot August day at Yankee Stadium be an overall higher run environment than a cold September night at Safeco Field?
There's something there, but it's hard to say with much confidence that American League pitchers have been harder to score on when they get less run support because of an altered pitching pattern. Here are some career numbers divided by B-Ref's leverage classifications:
I included three years of league average data to give you an idea of how much this stat regresses. Is it a repeatable skill to be better than normal in a high leverage situation? Not for the average American League pitcher; however, the last three Yankees teams have all done it. An above average bullpen could be a contributing factor, but all of the starters listed above also seem to do well.
*Even the headcase A.J. Burnett has positive career splits.
**Last year, in 122 high leverage plate appearances, batters hit .222/.275/.306, .581 OPS against Ivan Nova. That will regress, but, whatever, he has brass cajones and had an awesome rookie season.
Pitching to the score is like the existence of aliens. It's almost certainly a real thing and worth keeping your eye on, but it's close to impossible to measure or pin down. As far as I can tell, the Yankees have been doing a pretty good job of pitching well in big spots. As far as I can tell, there are no space pterodactyls on the moon. Be ready anyway.