Players’ View: Do Pitchers Pitch to the Score?

Following a 4-2 win over the Red Sox in late July, Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander was asked about pitch selection. His response to a small group of reporters was as follows:

“It’s different when it’s a [close] ballgame. You don’t think about pitch count as much; it’s just about getting outs. It’s a different situation with more runs. Maybe you take a shot at throwing some more-hittable pitches to get some quick outs. But not in a one-run ballgame.”

As the media scrum broke up, I asked Verlander a point-blank question: “Do you pitch to the score?” His answer was a short and simple, “Yes.”

He’s not the only one. Jack Morris has been criticized — if not mocked — for saying that he pitched to the score. Others have certainly done the same, but how many? Is the practice prevalent, or are pitchers like Morris and Verlander the exception rather than the rule?

I decided to explore the subject. Prompted by Verlander’s answer, I asked a collection of pitchers, catchers, pitching coaches and managers if big-league pitchers do indeed pitch to the score. Here are their responses.

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Alex Avila, Chicago White Sox catcher: “For a starter, it’s probably a little bit different than it is for a reliever. Some starters can’t. They’re kind of oblivious to the score — they don’t want to know the score — and they don’t want to let up.

“Some guys will pitch accordingly. If Verlander’s pitch count was getting up there in the early innings, and we had a big lead, he’d sometimes try to use the next few innings to get it back down a little bit. He’d pitch to the score, knowing that he had a little room for error.

“But for the most part, pitchers don’t want to let up. A big thing about learning to pitch in this league, as a starter, is having a big lead and being able to keep your focus. As a reliever, when you come in with a big lead, it’s about throwing strikes. You don’t want to be throwing to the edges of the plate. You’re working more middle and aren’t as concerned about giving up a run or two. You’re still pitching, but you’re not throwing a 3-1 breaking ball with a six-run lead in the eighth inning.”

Brian Bannister, Boston Red Sox director of pitching analytics: “If you’re going away from your strengths, you’re doing a disservice to your team. While the concept of pitching to contact, or being pitch efficient, sounds great, you’re actually reducing your effectiveness. It’s something that shouldn’t be done, even though it can be done and sometimes ends up in a good result. As a long-term strategy, I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think it’s done mostly by pitchers who haven’t yet seen the downside of doing it.”

Tyler Clippard, New York Yankees pitcher: “I think a young pitcher has a tendency to do that a little more. When I was younger and coming out of the bullpen in Washington, I had a tendency to not pitch the same way I would in high-leverage situations. You’re thrown out there in a 10-2 game, and you’re 2-0 on a guy, and you’re like, ‘I have to challenge him with a fastball,’ whereas in a different situation you wouldn’t do that.

“To answer your question, it happens a lot. Guys, especially young guys, come into a blowout and challenge hitters with fastballs. They feel they’re expected to. As a veteran guy, a message I send to younger pitchers is to pitch more selfishly in those situations. That’s the only way your career is going to progress the way you want it to. If you’re pitching to ‘What everybody in baseball’ thinks you should do — don’t pitch scared, da da da — the next thing you know, you’ve given up four earned runs and are being sent down to Triple-A, wondering what happened.

“I try to — each time out, no matter what the situation is — trick myself into thinking that we have a one-run lead and I can’t give up any runs. It’s easier said than done, but it’s the best way to do it.”

Don Cooper, Chicago White Sox pitching coach: “You’ve always got to take the score of the game into consideration. Depending on if you’re up, you’re down, you’re tied, the inning, how many are on base… yeah, you always have to be aware of the score. But regardless of what it is, you’re trying to put up a zero.

“The score does dictate how you pitch, but if I’m going to give a blanket statement here, we’re always trying to put up zeroes. We’re always trying to get ahead of hitters. We’re always trying to get the first guy each inning. Listen, if we’re up by a lot, it’s not just ‘Let’s go fastball.’ I still want my guys to pitch to their strengths and to the hitter’s weaknesses. I still want the plan carried out. That doesn’t mean some guys don’t [pitch to the score].”

Rich Dubee, Detroit Tigers pitching coach: “It depends. If it’s big runs early, against certain teams you can’t just say ‘Well, here, go ahead and hit it.’ You want to get on the plate early and then get off the plate, because generally teams are going to try to swing themselves back into it.

“To what extend do pitchers do it? I think it depends on the pitcher, really. It depends on his pitchability. Some guys are trying to hit 17 inches and other guys are trying to use four inches. But in general, if I’m ahead 6-0 in the third inning, sure, I’m probably going to be less fine. If I get behind in counts I’m probably going to challenge a little more. But again, you can’t challenge certain hitters in certain lineups.”

Nathan Eovaldi, New York Yankees pitcher: “I try not to think about the score, but when we’re up by five or six runs, I will attack hitters a little differently. I’ll attack more. It’s the same with holding runners — that type of deal. Up until then, I treat the game like it’s 0-0.”

John Farrell, Red Sox manager: “You’d like to think that every pitcher pitches to the pitch that needs to be executed. Now, the calling of a pitch may… if you’re pitching with a lead, you might be more aggressive in certain hitter counts. But still, you’d love for every pitch to be executed in a mindless fashion where score, out, inning is irrelevant.

“To condense that down even further, something I’ll mention to our guys — I’ll compliment them when they have a shutdown inning after we score. To me, that’s an important inning. There is momentum in this game, and you maintain it when your pitcher goes out and puts up a zero.

“In some cases, you will shift to a more aggressive approach. When you know one swing of the bat isn’t going to change the lead… the score may enable you to be more aggressive in hitter counts.”

Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers pitcher: “If I’m up by a bunch of runs, I’m going to pound the zone with fastballs. I’m going to try to get quicks outs to get my team back in the dugout. I’m not going to nitpick. You don’t want to give guys bases, so if a home run comes, you want it to be a solo shot. You don’t want it to be a two- or three-run homer, especially after a big inning from your teammates.

“You want to put zeroes up on the scoreboard, but at the same time, my main goal is to win the game. If we’re up 10-0 in the seventh inning, and I give up four runs, we’re probably still going to win. I obviously don’t want to give up runs, but I’m going to fill up the zone and go as deep into the game as I can.”

Jesse Hahn, Oakland Athletics pitcher: “I rely on my power sinker, so if I have a big lead, I’m definitely going to come out and be aggressive and try to get swings and have them put the ball in play. I wouldn’t want to pitch around guys, I would want to attack them and fill up the strike zone.”

Tom Koehler, Miami Marlins pitcher: “It’s definitely a tough situation, because if you have a big lead early, you kind of want to throw as many strikes as you can. You want to get the team in the dugout as fast as possible to score more runs. At the same time, you’ll see guys struggle when they have a big lead and get too far away from their game plans.

“I try not to think of the score. I try to pitch the same as I would if it’s a 0-0 game. In saying that, if you have a 2-1 count, or a 3-1 count, chances are you’re going to be more aggressive with fastballs in the zone. You don’t want to be walking guys with a large lead. You want to throw as many strikes as you can and keep the game moving.

“I guess I’d say you pitch to the score to a certain extent. You try to stick to your game plan, but if there’s a situation where you might throw a guy a 3-2 breaking ball, you’re more than likely going to challenge him with a fastball. I had a game recently where I had a big lead and gave up a couple of solo homers. I wasn’t too concerned with that. What you don’t want is to give up a big inning.”

Mike Matheny, St. Louis Cardinals manager: “That’s individualized. Some guys do and some guys don’t. I think you need to be aware of the game, because the bottom line — regardless of what the statistical world says — is to win. You want to go out and compete every pitch, but you also need to know where you are in relation to us as a group, and to winning. It’s a balance.

“I think most are trying to compete every pitch, but at the same time, most have a pretty good idea of what the score is. It affects how you’re going to attack certain hitters. There are things you have to keep in mind, and if you don’t, they’re in the catcher’s mind for sure.”

Brian McCann, New York Yankees catcher: “A lot goes into it. People pitch to the score, but I think they did it back in the day more than they do now. Maybe that’s because the pitcher getting the win meant more then. The analytics are going to a whole other place now. Back in the day, they looked at wins, and now they look at WHIP and a lot of other stuff.

“Everybody’s mindset is to go out there and get a quick inning and a scoreless inning, but you are going to pitch differently in a 10-0 game than you are in a one-run game. The catcher does [play a role in that]. In a one-run game, if you’re facing their best hitter and it’s a 2-1 or 3-1 count, maybe you’ll be more careful with what you’re going to throw. It may not be a fastball.”

James McCann, Detroit Tigers catcher: “That’s a loaded question. There are several things that go into it. First, as a pitcher, regardless of what the score is, you’re trying to put up numbers. You’re trying to have success for yourself. If your team is up big, it’s not like you’re going to say, ‘OK, here we go; I’m going to lay it in there and let you take a whack at it.’ You’re going to try to make pitches and get outs.

“At the same time, if you’re playing against a team you’re going to see numerous times over the course of the season, you probably don’t want to expose the way you’re going to attack that hitter in a one-run ballgame. So it’s kind of a fine line. To a certain extent, you do pitch a little different with a big lead.”

Dustin McGowan, Miami Marlins pitcher: “You do, kind of, but I’ve always been a guy who’s hated… Say you’re up 8-0. I’ve always hated being that guy to go in there and just throw fastballs. I’m a big believer in ‘Don’t change your approach.’ Things start messing up when you do.

“In a way it’s expected. You’d throw a 1-0 slider, up 8-0, and it felt like coaches were always, ‘Why did you do that?’ For me, it was ‘I don’t want to change my game, just because of the score. I want to continue to pitch like I pitch.’ You don’t want to be in a situation where the hitter knows you’re going to throw a fastball. It can make you lose your groove, and the other team gets back in it before you know it.”

Drew Pomeranz, Boston Red Sox pitcher: “I don’t. I go out there and try not to give up any hits or runs, anything, every time. I don’t really look at the scoreboard — the other side of the scoreboard — because my goal is to put up zeroes. My job stays the same, no matter what the score is. I just focus on the stuff I can control.”

CC Sabathia, New York Yankees pitcher: “I don’t think you do. When I first came up you did, but I don’t think guys pitch to the score anymore. I think you go out and continue to keep pitching your game.

“For me… I really can’t explain [why it changed], but now I go out and try to pitch my good game. When I was younger, I would just try to work quick and throw as many fastballs as I could.”

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Detroit Tigers catcher: “I feel that starting pitchers get a chance to do it a lot more than relievers. At the same time, you’re not going to just groove pitches because you’re up 10. But I think there is a bit of pitching to the score. The more runs you score, the more guys feel more comfortable throwing other pitches. They’re maybe not as tight; they’re a little looser so they’re able to throw them for strikes.

“There have been a couple times in my career where I’ve had to tell certain guys, ‘Hey, we’re up by 10, you don’t have to nibble. Let’s throw fastballs and get ahead of these guys. You don’t have to be throwing 3-2 curveballs. You’re in the driver’s seat now, so let’s keep pounding the strike zone.”

Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher: “There’s a difference between pitching in a game like the one on TV [the Cubs leading the Marlins 11-0] and a game that’s 1-0. The mindset is different. You don’t want to be tip-toeing and walking guys when you have a big lead. You want to fill up the strike zone. Of course, you also want be able to bear down when you need to.

“You don’t want to mess around and get behind guys. Giving up free base-runners is never good, and that’s especially true with a big lead. I’ll attack more, to be sure.”

Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher: “It’s always 0-0 to me. I lose an edge when I look up at the scoreboard and know I have a seven- or eight-run lead. You let up a little bit and start throwing heaters down the middle, and all of a sudden they score three and are back in the game. So to me it’s 0-0 all the time, or maybe I could say it’s 1-0 and I have to protect that lead. All game, I throw exactly like it’s the last pitch I’m ever going to throw.”

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Thanks to Eno Sarris for procuring the quotes from Jesse Hahn.

Of note: I had a problem with the labels on a few of the recorded interviews, and while I believe I got it right, there is a chance the quotes from Michael Fulmer and Dustin McGowan are misattributed to the other.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Jason Bmember
6 years ago

Interesting stuff, good work! I thought Clippard’s response was interesting; there were a couple of “young pitchers…do it a little more” and “it happens a lot” which sort of indicate that certain players do it, but not him; then he later says that he envisions coming in with a one-run lead every time, which suggests that he DOES pitch differently in that situation than he would otherwise. (i.e., if he didn’t pitch to the score he wouldn’t have to envision guarding a one-run lead as “extra motivation”.)