Statistical analysts have long been fascinated with the idea of clutch hitting. Often times, those who who have provided memorable hits have been assigned an ineffable quality, with the idea that they can raise their game when runners are in scoring position, with two outs, or late in games. The reality is most great clutch hitters are simply good hitters, and over time hitters put up roughly the same numbers regardless of the situation.
For pitchers, the situation is slightly more complicated. Hitting is reactive — one can only take what they are given. Pitchers have more control in big spots, and often their pitch usage with runners on base or in high leverage situations varies from their normal pitch sequencing.
It’s a matter of bearing down. We hear often that a pitcher "needs" a strikeout in a given situation, and often pitchers attack batters with that very outcome in mind.
For some hitters, this is the most important part of an opposing pitcher’s scouting report. Miguel Cabrera is a born hitter, the kind of guy who can rope doubles and hit opposite field home runs while falling out of bed. His unique skills and seemingly innate ability to put the bat on the ball allow him to spend less time in the video room than most players. In fact, he barely studies opposing pitchers much at all.
In a profile of Cabrera’s approach I wrote in 2013, he explained that most of his video work comes from just watching pitchers with runners on base or looking at what they throw from the stretch. It’s the only information he wants because he feels it gives him an edge when his team needs him most.
Some players don’t want that kind of information, but for a hitter like Cabrera — the rare talent that can sit on one pitch and still react to others — it can make all the difference during the game’s most dramatic moments as many pitchers make specific and deliberate adjustments when confronted with runners in scoring position.
On Friday afternoon, Kevin Gausman threw three and two-thirds brilliant innings in relief for the Orioles. While he didn’t face the Tigers’ former Triple Crown winner with runners on base, he did face off against Victor Martinez with two on in the seventh inning.
A starter during the season, Gausman pared down his repertoire while working through the Tigers order. He threw 12 straight fastballs to begin his outing before working in his splitter and the occasional slider. Even though he pumped his fastball all afternoon against Detroit, the first pitch Martinez saw in this crucial eighth inning at-bat was a splitter.
Here is how Gausman’s first pitch selection with runners in scoring position compared to all other situations, via Brooks Baseball.
Kevin Gausman, first pitches
All other situations
We see a huge spike in splitter usage, particularly with the first pitch. Gausman wants to get ahead, conscious of hitters trying to "ambush" the at-bat for glory and the RBI.
Gasuman isn’t alone. Tigers’ ace Max Scherzer throws more breaking balls when confronted with runners in scoring position. According to Pitchf/x, right-handed batters only saw first pitch fastballs 40 percent of the time against Scherzer in this situation as he offered heavy doses of sliders and changeups to keep them honest.
Max Scherzer, first pitches
All other situations
During his ALDS Game One start, Scherzer faced two righties with a runner in scoring position, both in the first inning. Adam Jones stepped in with runners on first and second and promptly grounded into a double play — on a first-pitch slider, of course. The next batter was Nelson Cruz, batting with Nick Markakis on third. The first pitch he saw was a fastball up and away and Cruz pounded it out to right field, giving the O’s a quick 2-0 lead.
After the game, Scherzer said it was a missed location that cost him against Cruz. After using his slider to start Jones, perhaps he wanted to show Cruz something different, throwing a fastball in what he believed was a safe location to get ahead in the count. Instead, he left it up and Cruz made him pay. Hindsight being 20/20, Scherzer probably sticks closer to his usual RISP script if he could do it all again.
In conversations with players about the thought process of RISP situations, pitchers cite the need to "bear down" and the value of jumping ahead in the count early, while hitters recognize they’re going to see more breaking balls and offspeed pitches. Both sides know what the other is trying to accomplish and tries to stay one step ahead in the guessing game.
Situational hitting might not be a repeatable skill as much as an adjustment required for big-league success. In the playoffs especially, where every run just feels more important, pitchers go to their best stuff when they need to snuff a rally. The best or most effective hitters can narrow their focus on a few key pitches, knowing the importance of capitalizing on any run-scoring opportunities.
But the million-dollar question remains: are pitchers more effective when they bear down? Is changing up a pitcher’s approach with runners in scoring position the best way to produce the desired outcome and keep runs off the board? That much isn’t so clear. With runners in scoring position in 2014, pitchers as a collective posted a lower strikeout rate and a higher walk rate compared to their numbers with the bases empty.
The Book shows pitching from the stretch makes pitchers slightly less effective, though the exact amount of penalty expected is tough to nail down. Pitchers did a worse job of getting hitters out when they had to contend with runners in scoring position. With the increase in breaking balls and offspeed pitches, an increase in walk rate should be expected. Better to nibble a little and go after the next hitter than "give in" and allow a run-scoring hit.
Over the past two seasons, one of the most effective pitchers in baseball when pitching with RISP is Yu Darvish. The Rangers ace is known for his wide variety of pitches, a mix he doesn’t appear to change greatly by situation. Baseball Prospectus recently looked at James Shields of the Royals, a player whose numbers get better as the situation gets more difficult. He accomplishes this feat by varying his attack wildly, saving weapons like his cut fastball for its pinpoint control as well as the element of surprise.
No matter how they approach it, pitchers are just trying to record outs. They pitch to the strengths and rely on their scouting reports all the same, with runners on base or without. We can see some starters go about their business quite differently in an attempt to achieve a few specific outcomes — strikeouts or ground balls, anything that stops a rally in its tracks.