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Archive for September 3rd, 2011

When Felix Hernandez won the 2010 AL Cy Young with a 13-12 record, it was a watershed event in terms of how award voters weigh various statistics. In the past, Hernandez’ low win total would have all but eliminated him from consideration, but more recently, a growing percentage of the electorate has started to use more advanced measures of performance, or, at the very least, more traditional measures, such as ERA, that aren’t as team-dependent as wins.

Justin Verlander's fastball is one of the most potent weapons in the game.

Just because Hernandez won last year’s Cy Young, however, doesn’t mean the debate about the true value of wins is over. Many in and around the game still advance the theory that because pitchers factor the score into their pitch selection, more advanced measures of performance, often called peripherals, can become distorted.  In a lively Twitter debate, Buster Olney provided a quintessential example of this phenomenon by asking: with two outs and a man on third in the fourth inning, what kind of pitch would Justin Verlander throw in a 3-2 count if his team was winning by four runs?

According to Olney, Verlander would be more apt to throw a fastball in that situation because he would care less about “giving in” than avoiding a walk (i.e., risking a bigger inning by putting another man on base). The clear implication is that Verlander’s ERA would then be distorted because his primary goal wasn’t to prevent a run, but avoid surrendering the lead (i.e., getting the win).

Before testing this theory, it’s worth considering that if the Verlander “pitches to the score” than it’s likely others do as well (meaning relative ERA would still be a sound basis for comparison). What’s more, it would also stand to reason that batters “hit to the score” (and maybe defensive players field to the score?). For example, using Olney’s scenario, we might posit that a hitter sitting dead red on 3-2 would try to turn on the pitch instead of take his normal swing. Although taking this approach could theoretically increase the chances of making an out (because the hitter isn’t reacting, but pre-determining his approach), it would also enhance the likelihood of a home run, which would do more to cut into a big deficit. In other words, pitching to the score and hitting to the score could very well cancel out.

Justin Verlander’s Pitch Selection in Full Counts

Note: FB= fastball; SL= slider; CU = curve; CH = change. 3-2 samples are 191 for “all” and 30 for “with 4-run lead”.
Source: fangraphs.com and www.joelefkowitz.com

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