Tuesday, December 31, 2013


A brief respite from the avalanche of "non-save situation" data, so that we can briefly focus on the question that has plagued numbers guys for almost as long as most of 'em have been shaving...

...namely, do starting pitchers "pitch to the score"?

There have been several attempts to address this thorny issue, not the least of which is related to the annoying claim of some MSM writers when pressed to justify their support for Jack Morris over the long, agonizing years of his HOF candidacy.

Most of those were a bit over-ingenious (one of the things that "non-MSM" writers increasingly fail to apologize for when they are going on the attack in order to make the world safe for over-ingeniousness).

So we thought there might be a simpler way to look at the matter, particularly in light of the fact that Forman et fils has been kind enough to fork over ready access to the "splits data" from their massive files.

Part of that "split data" looks at the performances of pitchers with respect to the run support they receive. This has been broken into three "buckets": performance when the pitcher receives 0-2 runs; when he receives 3-5 runs; and when he receives 6 or more runs.

We can capture that data and make a side-by-side list of it (as we've done for the 50 pitchers with the lowest ERA in low run support games...er, that's 50 pitchers meeting that criterion, plus two "jokers" to round out the deck).

Now we should note up front that the list (at left) doesn't include everyone: the data isn't so easily accessible that we can get it for each run scoring category. Additionally, many pitchers from the deeper recesses of the past are not complete enough to meet our minimum standards for inclusion: 75+ GS  in low run support games (0-2); 100+ GS in moderate run support games (3-5); and 80+ GS in high run support games (6+). And even at that, some of the data here represents partial careers (most prominently Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander).

Nonetheless, what the data shows us is that, in one way or another, a large plurality of pitchers do "pitch to the score." Twenty-two of the top fifty pitchers in low run support ERA show a pronounced pattern where their ERAs get worse in a linear fashion as their run support increases. And there are a few we neglected to highlight (in yellow) who conform to this pattern in less dramatic ways.

As a side note, it probably won't surprise you to discover that the top five pitchers on this list in terms of low run support ERA are all in the Hall of Fame (Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Alexander, Stan Coveleski, and Tom Seaver). Sorting the list this way turns up a lot of HOFers (24 out of 50, if we get brazen and include a few folks who are likely to get in soon--Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and--yes--Roger Clemens). Oh, yes: please note that if you're counting the bolded players, you'll get a number that's one shy of our "24" figure: we forgot to bold the name of Jim Bunning with the other HOFers.

The most spectacular manifestation of "pitching to the score" on this list belongs to Chris Carpenter. We wonder if Tony LaRussa knew just how much Carpenter tended to rise to the occasion depending on his run support. If so, that would provide another explanation as to why he left CC in that 1-0 game with the Phillies during the 2011 NLCS that got Mickey Lichtman's knickers twisted around his windpipe to such an extent that he's forever become a piece of talking sandpaper.

And this is as good a time as any, then, to introduce our two "jokers" in the deck--Jack Morris and Dave Stieb--two 1980s starting pitchers who've been given no small amount of heavily freighted comparison over the past decade (one that, as we finally fade the age of terrorism into the rearview mirror, will eventually be described as the time of the "Morris Wars"). Those attempting to stuff the toothpasty Morris back into the tube will be heartened to know that he most definitely does not pitch to the score, at least not by a classic "linear" definition. But those who want to claim that Jack's ERA was fluffed up by some "coasting" in high run support games have some ammo to work with, too.

One thing is for damn sure, however. Dave Stieb didn't pitch to no stinkin' score. And, in the eyes of those who want to find a way to enshrine counter-intuitivity in the Hall of Fame, that makes him a hero. Or, should we say, as we remember to quote Jim Bouton, a god-damned hero.

We'll do a little more with this data a bit later on. Meanwhile, back to that strange world of the "non-save situation"...