Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pitching to Score: An Attribution Error

The situation: two on and two outs, as my opponent’s best hitter approaches the plate. It’s a one-run game, and he pounds his glove-clad hands together as he stares me down. I look past this foaming monster and glance at the on-deck circle, where appears a hitter against whom I’ve had continual success. What do I do? Obviously I pitch around the monster and face the on-deck hitter. I will be sacrificing my strikeout-to-walk ratio in favor of (hopefully) not allowing a run, but in doing so I’ll be increasing my chance of winning.

Now imagine the exact same scenario, but this time instead of being up by only a run, I’m up by six runs. What do I do? I attack the hitter. Allowing a single run is no longer paramount, but allowing more base runners can potentially lead to disaster, so I pitch to their best hitter instead of pitching around him.

A single instance of pitching to a situation, there exist a plethora of other examples as well. All pitchers will attest to performing in this fashion, most with varying degrees of success. But is pitching to a situation the same as the more general concept of pitching to score? And is this even possible?

The theory goes that a pitcher will pitch differently with a one run lead as compared to having a five, six or twenty run lead. (For a primer, see Joe Posnanski’s piece: http://joeposnanski.com/JoeBlog/2009/09/12/pitching-to-the-score/ ) If a pitcher has a one run lead, every pitch will be thrown with the utmost focus, as each pitch is pivotal. If, on the other hand, the pitcher has a six run lead, the pitcher may in fact attack hitters differently. Wanting to avoid free bases and confident that a solo homerun will not beat them, they may throw more fastballs and force contact earlier in the count.

According to this theory, a “winning” pitcher is someone who is better at this. The “winner” knows how to pitch in close games and therefore knows how to win. But in my opinion our eyes are often simply full of crap, and lie to us more than a politician at a campaign rally. (A painful thought). We often see things that aren’t there, and this leads to errors in our reasoning. In this manner, a fundamental error gnaws at every pitcher when speaking of pitching to score.

To illustrate, let’s look at my last three years of pitching (now that the regular season of this year has ended, I can look at these numbers without fear of superstitious retribution). My ERA for the past three years and the corresponding WHIPs are as follows: ERAs: 3.88, 3.78, and 3.20; WHIPs: 1.31, 1.36, 1.29.

The numbers are pretty similar from year to year, and so, given that I had relatively the same amount of starts each year (the only exception is this year, when I briefly pitched out of the bullpen and thus made only 20 starts), one would think that my win-loss records would be similar as well. Well, here are the numbers:

2007: 3-17

2008: 13-9

2009: 12-6

The first number, 3, isn’t a fat-fingered typo produced by too much sodium intake (though I do need to cut back on those sunflower seeds). I only won three games during the entire year of 2007, and I led all of the minor leagues in losses. Yes, I have been told that wins are a poor indicator of performance, but this is only auxiliary to the scope of our argument. What we’re looking for is whether a person can pitch to score.

I have been told by some of my pitching coaches that the reason I am winning more ballgames is that I have gotten better at pitching to score. Since this is a good thing to hear, and it is a good thing for them to think, I tend to nod my head, smile, and say, “Yes, that is something that I’m really working on. I focus a lot more in close situations.”

In reality, though, I don’t think I’m doing anything different. In 2007, a decimating combo plagued me: the worst run support AND the most errors made behind me of any pitcher in the league. Mostly, then, I’ve gotten more run support and better defense in 2008 and 2009, and therefore I’ve won more games.

Yet we athletes are animals driven by ego, and so we like to take credit for our success and deflect blame for our failures. In fact, what many pitchers make when they claim that they pitch to score is probably just an attribution error.

The fundamental attribution error is a bedrock concept of social psychology, with the standard example being actor/observer bias. One aspect of the FAE is that people tend to overemphasize internal factors and underemphasize the external. By a strict definition it doesn’t completely apply to our argument, but it has plenty of parallels. For instance, one explanation for this error is that we humans like to believe that we have control over our lives. We like to think that the world makes sense. When presented with a given situation, we like to have power over the outcome, as uncertainty becomes our enemy. This certainly applies to pitching.

It makes the pitcher’s mind feel pretty good if he feels that he has control over a baseball game. Conversely, if things are left to complete chance or situational factors beyond his control, then a pitcher feels pretty helpless. But in fact, everyone will agree that chance plays a HUGE role in baseball. With line drives being hit right at a person and bloopers falling after a big pitch, the game hardly seems just.

Athlete after athlete, feeling confident about a win, will go home at the end of the night and think about the things that they did well to have success. They will focus on intrinsic things and forget about the role of chance and the extrinsic factors that contributed. After a failure, though, they are more apt to think of the extrinsic factors and the bad luck that led to their misfortune. It’s much easier to think of these factors beyond your control than to think of all the personal mistakes that were made over the course of the game. The same principle applies with the concept of pitching to score.

Those deemed “winning” pitchers, again driven by ego, say that they are pretty good at pitching to score and pitching to situations. In fact, most winning pitchers are no better at pitching to score or situations than any other pitcher (see Posnanski’s Jack Morris versus Bert Blyleven discussion), it’s just that they have less of these situations. When you allow less base runners, you’re obviously not going to find yourself in these situations as often and you’re going to win more ballgames, unless you’re plagued by terrible run support and bad defense. Furthermore, these pitchers often have good enough stuff to increase their chances of getting out of a jam unscathed.

So yes, a pitcher will attempt to pitch to a situation and will attempt to pitch to score. Are some pitchers better at this than others? Probably not. The best pitchers simply allow less people to reach (think of Lincecum’s incredible 1.04 WHIP here) and are inherently better when they do reach. It sounds good when a pitcher goes on TV and talks about the amount of control that he has over a situation, and how clever he is when pitching differently depending on the score, but this simply isn’t the truth. He’s simply letting his eyes deceive him, trying to claim control over sometimes-uncontrollable forces. In this way, he’s no different than anyone else.

8 comments:

Dan said...

This is a very well written and reasoned post. I imagine you must have some issues - if not communicated then at least internally - with your coaches, whom I assume to be old school, conventional wisdom types.

Do you ever bring these kinds of points up with coaches, or do you deem it pointless to try?

gbroshuis said...

Just saw this comment. Sorry for the slow response.

Have I brought these kinds of points up with coaches? A little but yes, most are old school. In fact, one pitching coach that I had in pro ball even bragged that "He never looked at stats. Useless." And then those that actually make the decisions aren't very approachable, so you can't really talk to them. Everything's a secret.

obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

Nice post.

Don't know if you ever saw this, but Rob Neyer (of Bill James and ESPN fame) once did some analysis of Kirk Reuter's stats, looking at his (if I recall right) K/9, BB/9, H/9 and HR/9, and found that Reuter was pretty stingy with the walks when nobody was on base, but once there was a runner on base, he would then change tactics and pound the corners, raising his walks, but reducing his other stats a lot. I think he compared Rueter with another pitcher with low strikeout rate who was with Detroit (Cornejo?)

Not quite pitching to score, but pitching to situation definitely. Since he lives near St. Louis, your home town is probably not that far away from his home, maybe he'll be willing to talk with you and give you some tips since he, like you, didn't have a lot of stuff, and thus had low strikeout rates. Maybe if you can get into his mind, you can pick up something that helps you next season, should you continue to pursue the dream.

At worse, maybe you get to at least see his fabled "Shed" and see all his toys and have a nice afternoon.

gbroshuis said...

I'll have to check out the Neyer analysis. He's got some great stuff.

Reuter was actually one of the first Giants that I met after I signed. They took me into the clubhouse to meet a couple of guys and to introduce me to the medical staff (I had to get a physical) and they pulled Reuter (Woody) and Jason Schmidt over. Bonds was around and even Mays made an appearance. It was one of the last times that I ever went into that clubhouse.

obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

I realized that the article might be too old to be stored on ESPN and I was right.

So I located it on "The Wayback Machine" (www.archive.org). It's great for finding old websites long gone.

Here is the link to the archived copy of the article I mentioned: http://web.archive.org/web/20030623200113/http://espn.go.com/mlb/columns/bp/1561575.html

Read the paragraphs after the table with his stats from 2000-2003.

David V. Sanders said...

So glad to have discovered your blog. I'm enjoying all of it, but particularly your astute analysis here. Any chance you could be a player-GM for my beloved Cubs next year?? You could name yourself the 5th starter and, hopefully, avoid making any more of Hendry's dreadful long-term contract offers to declining stars and malcontents.

pfellah said...

I really enjoyed this piece, and will be following your blog in the future. Sometimes it seems like there's this either/or mentality where "stats people" don't have game experience to supplement what the numbers tell them, while players don't always put a lot of stock in the stats beyond the obvious ones. That makes it interesting to see someone such as yourself write thoughtfully about where the two perspectives meet. Keep it up.

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