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CC Sabathia and Pitching to the Score

Since Clubhouse Confidential is an off-season only show, the MLB Network has created a new show called MLB Now, where Brian Kenny and Harold Reynolds frequently disagree on differing topics. On yesterday’s show, the two briefly discussed the value of pitcher wins, as you can see in this clip below.

In that segment, Harold Reynolds cites CC Sabathia as an example of a pitcher who pitches to the score, noting that he performs differently when the game is on the line than when he’s just trying to get outs and has some runs to give up. While one will never be able to definitively prove or disprove the intent of a pitcher, given that we are left to only measure what they do rather than what they are thinking, Reynolds’ claim is testable. If Sabathia pitched dramatically better in close games than with a big lead, it would show up in the data.

It does not.

Here on FanGraphs, we track every play by it’s leverage index, which takes into account the score at the moment, how many men are on base, and how many outs there are. We have splits for every player in high leverage, medium leverage, and low leverage states. If Sabathia cruises when he has a big lead and there’s no one on and then really buckles down when the game is tight and every at-bat is critical, it should show up in his leverage splits. So, here they are.

Low 1024 7% 22% 0.93 0.287 1.90 3.58 3.60 0.238 0.298 0.373 0.296
Medium 1209.1 7% 20% 0.69 0.296 3.75 3.33 3.68 0.247 0.303 0.372 0.297
High 178.2 8% 20% 0.50 0.295 9.97 3.31 3.73 0.242 0.319 0.387 0.305

ERA is included because I figure people would ask about it if it wasn’t, but since runners on is a driving force of leverage, by definition ERA is going to be much higher in that situation. The numbers you really care about are the results of each batter faced, and there we see minimal differences. Sabathia actually gets slightly more strikeouts in low leverage situations, which kind of cuts against the idea that he’s just pitching to contact in order to conserve pitches, and opposing batters do just slightly better against him in high leverage situations than the rest of the time. This appears to be mostly a situational trade-off, though, as his walk rate goes up and strikeout rate go down in exchange for a big drop in HR rate.

So, Reynolds is correct that Sabathia pitches differently depending on the game situation, but this isn’t just a CC Sabathia thing – every pitcher makes this trade to some degree. Here are the league average BB/K/HR rates for 2012 by leverage state.

League BB% K% HR/9
Low 8% 20% 1.05
Medium 8% 19% 1.03
High 10% 20% 0.91

Sabathia has historically made a larger-than-usual trade-off in terms of swapping out strikeouts for more walks and fewer home runs, but it’s a trade, not an upgrade. Sabathia doesn’t get more hitters out in critical situations, he just gets them out a little differently. Overall, Sabathia is equally effective in each kind of situation, regardless of leverage.

But, you know, maybe you don’t like leverage, since baserunners are part of the calculation, and you think that what we’re really talking about is just pitching to the score. Well, Baseball Reference has splits by scoring margin, so we can evaluate that too.

Tie Game 3,223 8% 22% 0.77 0.292 0.239 0.304 0.363 0.668
Within 1 R 5,959 7% 21% 0.78 0.297 0.245 0.306 0.377 0.682
Within 2 R 7,843 7% 21% 0.81 0.293 0.244 0.305 0.376 0.681
Within 3 R 9,118 7% 21% 0.78 0.293 0.244 0.304 0.373 0.677
Within 4 R 9,810 7% 21% 0.78 0.293 0.244 0.304 0.372 0.676
Margin > 4 R 927 6% 20% 0.92 0.304 0.257 0.308 0.382 0.690
Ahead 4,891 6% 21% 0.79 0.293 0.245 0.298 0.367 0.664
Behind 2,623 8% 20% 0.81 0.298 0.253 0.317 0.398 0.715

Sabathia isn’t any tougher against batters in tie games than he is when his team is either up or down by four runs. In fact, his numbers across each margin are extremely stable, showing that Sabathia basically pitches like Sabathia regardless of what the score in the game is. At least, from a results perspective. He might shift his approach, but it doesn’t change the overall picture in any real way.

At the bottom, though, there is one spot where we do see a bit of a split. Sabathia’s numbers with a lead are a bit better than when he’s pitching from behind, but this is probably just a selection bias issue. The league as a whole pitches better when ahead than when behind, and that’s likely due to the fact that the “behind” sample is more likely to include days when they’re facing tougher opponents. You’re more likely to be losing to a good hitting team than one that has trouble scoring, so this is probably just an artifact of opponent quality. The league average OPS allowed was 37 points lower with a lead last year than it was while trailing, so Sabathia isn’t particularly special in this regard either.

And, it’s probably worth noting that this split is somewhat counter to the idea of pitching to the score. The general notion that Reynolds puts forth is that we need to look at pitcher wins because metrics like ERA penalize pitchers who give up more runs when they have a cushion, so we need an adjustment for the fact that their numbers are worse when they have the lead. In reality, pitchers pitch better when they have the lead, so that adjustment isn’t even necessary.

There is no evidence here that CC Sabathia’s ERA has been artificially inflated because of the fact that he allows meaningless runs to score when the situation makes those runs less harmful. There is evidence that Sabathia, like most pitchers, allows fewer home runs in close situations by pitching to the corners of the strike zone, but it doesn’t change the batters overall results much. From what we can tell, CC Sabathia pitches like CC Sabathia, whether the game is 10-0 or 1-0.