'Pitching to the score' alters mound mindsets

'Pitching to the score' alters mound mindsets

'Pitching to the score' alters mound mindsets
The baseball idea of "pitching to the score," that a pitcher would be more willing to give up runs once he's been granted a big lead, has long been the subject of scrutiny.

It's been almost universally dismissed from a statistical point of view, as it would be extremely difficult to prove a pitcher was allowing runs only because he had a big enough lead to do so. But the idea that a pitcher would change his approach in those situations? That is no doubt a reality, even if it doesn't show up in the numbers.

"I do," Justin Verlander said.

"Yeah," agreed Rays lefty David Price. James Shields, Price's teammate, echoed that response.

"You're going to be more aggressive just naturally, because the last thing you want to do is walk guys," Shields said. "When you have a lead, you're definitely going to pitch more aggressively."

Shields summed up the way most pitchers go about changing their approach: The bigger the lead, the more aggressive they are. Ideally, doing so would lead to more strikes thrown, potentially more early swings and therefore quicker at-bats, letting the pitcher get deeper into the game without taxing himself or his bullpen.

The risk of that, of course, is that throwing more strikes gives batters more hittable pitches to square up and drive. But for pitchers like Verlander, that risk is worth the opportunity to speed up the game and stay on the mound.

"If I have a big lead, I pitch much more aggressively," Verlander said. "I try to get a lot of quick outs, allow myself to go eight or nine innings."

That can actually be seen in Verlander's numbers from a year ago, when he won the American League Cy Young Award and MVP. Of the 498 batters Verlander faced with a lead, he struck out 134 and walked only 30, while giving up 13 home runs. Opponents posted a lower on-base percentage against Verlander in those situations (.235, compared to .248 when he was trailing) but a higher slugging percentage (.308 to .267).

"If it's a tight one, obviously I still want to go eight or nine, but you can't allow yourself to make a mistake so a guy doesn't hit a solo homer," Verlander said. "That doesn't matter with a big lead."

Then there's Price, whose career numbers are nearly identical whether he's ahead or behind. Price has allowed more baserunners but fewer extra-base hits, when his offense has given him a lead -- the opposite of Verlander. Opponents have a .665 OPS when the 2010 AL Cy Young runner-up has a lead compared to a .664 OPS when he doesn't, an insignificant difference.

Whatever the numbers might say, Price said he feels free to challenge hitters in the strike zone more when he's given a lead.

"If you have a one-run, two-run lead and nobody's on base, the worst that can happen is the game can be tied or you're up by one," Price said. "It's a very comforting feeling whenever you have a lead up there, even when it's one. They've done a good job for me this year of scoring runs early, and I appreciate it."

Yet those numbers only deal with run support, not whether a pitcher toes the rubber with a lead to preserve. So far this season, pitchers have allowed a .253/.316/.405 batting line in what baseball-reference.com considers "low-leverage" moments. In "high-leverage" situations, hitters have posted a .258/.329/.399 line, not terribly different from the low-leverage figures nor from the way Verlander put fewer men on base but gave up more extra-base hits when pitching with a lead.

In that regard, Verlander and Price are "pitching to the score," because they would rather risk giving up a home run that would change the score, but not the outcome, instead of drawing out an at-bat or issuing a walk that could prolong an inning and start a rally. But so would everyone else.

Across the Majors, pitchers own a 4.42 ERA this season when receiving at least six runs of support. That mark dips down to 4.04 with three to five runs of support and climbs a bit to 4.13 with two runs or fewer. That general pattern has held true in most seasons, with 2003 and '09 a couple of recent exceptions.

The numbers aren't always dramatically different based on the amount of run support provided, however, once again making it difficult to find a connection between pitching with a lead and surrendering runs. It's not as if anyone heads to the mound looking or willing to give up runs, whether he's pitching to the score or not.

"You're going to pitch aggressively for the most part of the game, depending on what kind of pitcher you are," Shields said. "I think it's just one of things where, when you have a lead, you try not to be too, too fine -- but you've still got to make your pitches."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.