By In Stuff

The Reality and Absurdity of Pitching To the Score

First a golf question: You are a golfer facing two putts. The putts are exactly the same. Exactly. They are 20 footers. Uphill. Same weather conditions. Same wind. Same green. You correctly read both putts as left-edge, meaning that if you putt the ball at the proper speed toward the left edge of the hole, it will gently break right into the cup. We are talking about identical putts.

Except for this:

Putt No. 1 happens when you and a friend are goofing around on the golf course, and the putt is to clinch double bogey.

Putt No. 2 is at the U.S. Open and if you make it, you magically win the championship.

I’m sure you already have a thought on this — someone brought it up to me, and I did. Let’s look at the two situations logically. The buddy putt, you will be relaxed and loose and free, which is obviously a good thing. No pressure. No crowd watching. On the other hand, you probably will not lock in on this putt, not focus too deeply, not put much effort into making it.

The U.S. Open putt is the opposite. You will obviously put all of your energy and focus on the putt. You will obviously try your hardest. But the crowd, the moment, the intensity would be pretty overwhelming. You might second-guess your read. You might be overwhelmed by nerves. You might find it hard to empty your mind from all sorts of unhelpful thoughts.

You probably have a strong opinion about which putt you would make (or neither, or both) … but that’s actually not the question.

The question is this: How do you think you would FEEL about making one putt or the other one?

Here’s my feeling: If I made the first putt, the putt with my buddy, I’d probably not think much about it. I got lucky. I had a nice little moment on an otherwise lousy hole. I might get to brag about it to a friend. I certainly would not take from this that I have courage or daring or guts or anything like that.

If I make the second putt, though, I pitched to the score. There’s absolutely no question about that. I faced down my fears, I overcame my doubts, I made the putt against all odds and with the most intense pressure howling in my face. If I make that putt, I undoubtedly will make conclusions about myself, my constitution, my mettle, my strength of character. I’ll decide I’m a pretty amazing guy.

You might have heard about the great little debate on the MLB Network between Brian Kenny and Harold Reynolds. They started to argue about whether or not pitching wins are overrated as a statistic — and check out the poll numbers on the bottom right-hand corner! Yikes! — and it rather quickly devolved into a talk-over-each-other discussion about CC Sabathia and pitching to the score.

Pitching to the score — the idea that a pitcher reaches for something more in high leverage situations and tends to cruise along carelessly when the score is 9-2 — usually comes up in the context of Jack Morris. There are many, many people who think Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame, despite his 3.90 ERA, which would be the highest ERA in the Hall of Fame. The Morris supporters have for years claimed that his high ERA is an illusion, that Morris gave up many meaningless runs in games that weren’t close but he was consistently brilliant when the situation called for brilliance. As evidence, they can point to his relatively high win percentage (.577 — which would place him middle of the pack in the Hall), the praise of teammates and opponents, and, of course, his glorious Game 7 in the 1991 World Series.

As counter-evidence, though, there are dozens and dozens of statistical studies that search and search but cannot find any evidence at all that Morris pitched better in close games, won more than his share of close games or could turn on the juice when he needed it most. Well, there were certain YEARS when he did seem to show some pitch-to-the-score tendencies. In 1982, for instance, hitters hit just .187 against him in high leverage situations, a much lower average than in other situations. But the next three seasons, batters hit much better in those high leverage situations, culminating in 1985 when hitters hit .210 against Morris in low-pressure moments, but jumped up to .276 when the game was on the line.

Sabathia is a better pitcher than Morris was (in that he gives up fewer runs in a higher scoring environment) but there are obviously many similarities. They are both brig men (Morris, it’s easy to forget, is 6-foot-3). Both challenged hitters with hard pitches. Both were/are workhorses — consistently among league leaders in complete games and innings pitched. Both are admired by teammates and opponents for their competitive nature and consistency. Also, they have both spent most of their time on really good teams that score a lot of runs, which helps that win percentage.

And when you throw all of of that together, you can hear the sirens for a “Myth Watch” — that is to say conditions are favorable for the development of severe myth-making.

Sabathia is a really, really good pitcher — well on his way to the Hall of Fame — who strikes out a lot of hitters, doesn’t walk many, has been good at limiting home runs and stretching out his starts. He typically holds teams to three or fewer runs in the six or seven or eight or nine innings he pitches. When you consider that the Yankees average 5.8 runs per Sabathia start, well, yeah, you can see how that’s going to lead to a lot of celebrations and Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” over the Yankee Stadium loudspeaker. This is simple but brutally effective math.

But that kind of math is clinical and antiseptic. It doesn’t capture the awesomeness of CC Sabathia, a huge guy with a fun personality and a thrilling pitching style. So, Harold Reynolds (who I like very much) and many others want to talk about the magic and valor of CC Sabathia. That means, yep: Pitching to the score.* It’s not enough to say that Sabathia is usually good at limiting runs while the Yankees are usually good at scoring them. Sabathia must be granted superpowers, a cosmic ability to win 1-0 whenever the situation demands it. Of course, his ERA is not 0.00 — he does give up runs, more runs sometimes than decidedly non-pitch-to-the-score guys like Felix Hernandez or Cliff Lee or Jered Weaver or Matt Cain — but like with Morris’ ERA, there’s an easy way out: You simply say he gives up the runs when they matter the least.

*Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron, in case you are curious, has done a great job here breaking down the statistical story. It shows pretty convincingly that Sabathia does not appear to pitch to the score.**

**Editor’s note: Let me rephrase this a little bit — what Cameron shows is that Sabathia does not seem to pitch more effectively when the score is close or the situation at higher leverage. Of course pitchers do change their styles somewhat depending on the situation. Of course pitchers throw differently on a 3-1 count than an 0-2 count. They will pitch differently the fourth time they face a batter than the first three. It’s a game of constant adjustments and subtle but very real complexities. It’s not right to reduce that to nothing. But this question of pitching to the score is not one of style but of effectiveness. And, again and again, it is shown that while pitchers may throw fewer walks in low leverage situations, while they may strike out batters more when pumped up in high leverage, when you total it up one style seems to be no more effective than the other.

In the Kenny-Reynolds Debates, Brian spent some time piercing the sheer illogic of pitching to the score: He asks the simple question of why a pitcher would want to give up runs when the score isn’t close. It reminded me of John Updike’s brilliant response to those who said that Ted Williams wasn’t a clutch hitter:

Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance — since the reference point of most individual games is remote and statistical — always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not only by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art. Insofar as the clutch hitter is not a sportswriters myth, he is a vulgarity, like a writer who writes only for money.

If there was a pitcher who really and truly pitched to the score … he too would be a vulgarity. Everyone on his team would despise him. He’d be out there goofing off when the game isn’t close, turning blowouts into nail-biters (when, I suppose, the pitch-to-the-score gene would kick in), only unveiling his real talents in the biggest moments. We call such athletes head cases, and they never last long in any sport. If Tom Watson only made the chip when it was to win the U.S. Open, he’d never have won the U.S. Open.

I understand why people want to grant Morris and Sabathia the power to pitch to the score, but iI guess my biggest problem with it is that, in so many ways, it detracts from their true greatness. Both took the ball. Both overcame those days when they weren’t feeling right, when their arm ached, when their minds were blurry. Both pitched every fifth day, almost without fail, and you could COUNT on them, whether it was in Cleveland in April or Kansas City in July or Yankee Stadium in September. You could count on them. Sometimes, they’d be brilliant. Sometimes, they’d be average. Sometimes they’d be lousy. And this was not entirely in their control. But however they pitched, they’d be out there again five days later.

I find that so much more admirable than a pitcher who can only find his best under the brightest lights and surrounded by the loudest fans.

Not that I even believe such a pitcher exists.

I understand why so many people believe in the pitching to the score theme. We all would like to believe we are at our best when the situation demands it. And the successes we have in those demanding situations just confirms the belief. If I struck out a hitter with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a 1-0 game, I’m sure I’d believe I was pretty special. I’d believe that I just reached deeper. I’d believe I pitched to the score. And nobody would ever be able to convince me otherwise.

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46 Responses to The Reality and Absurdity of Pitching To the Score

  1. Steve Holtje says:

    You have set up “pitching to the score” in such a way that it can’t help but seem laughable. It is not deliberately giving up more runs, it is pounding the strike zone to not walk batters. Of course this increases the likelihood of the batters getting hits, but it is a perfectly sensible strategy. It is “good process.” It also keeps pitch count down, so the pitcher can pitch deeper into the game, which does increase the likelihood of getting the win as it reduces or eliminates the bullpen in the equation.

    None of that is to say that the hard statistics about Morris and Sabathia are wrong or can be ignored.

    • Steve: That sounds well and good, but *every* pitcher throws more strikes and walks fewer batters when the game isn’t close. For ‘pitch to the score’ to be meaningful, it would have to be more exclusive, somehow more special.

    • David says:

      I’m a Tigers fan who watched Morris a lot in his heyday, and he often pitched poorly with a close score … at the beginning of games. It was common knowledge that teams had their best chance against him early, and we often saw him knocked out of the box before the fifth. But if he got locked in, he was an absolute monster protecting a late lead. If anyone has a breakdown of his ERA by inning, it might shed a little more light on this discussion.

    • Av says:

      1st- 4.23
      2nd- 3.66
      3rd- 3.94
      4th- 4.31
      5th- 3.68
      6th- 4.03
      7th- 3.33
      8th- 4.07
      9th- 2.78
      Extras- 6.94

    • Ian R. says:

      Well, of COURSE Morris pitched better late in the game. If he wasn’t pitching well, he wouldn’t have been allowed to pitch into the ninth inning. That’s true of just about any pitcher.

    • David says:

      Not really. A pitcher in the ninth is facing major league batters who’ve already seen him three or four times. That’s a serious test which most highly touted closers can’t handle.

    • Aaron Ross says:

      What do you mean that he pitched better late in the game? how do you explain his 8th inning ERA?

    • Unknown says:

      This comment has been removed by the author.

    • Unknown says:

      I’d also bet that his 9th inning ERA is a much smaller sample size and that he was only in there in the 9th when he was cruising…

  2. I think the issue is to a certain extent we’re arguing past each other. I have no doubt that pitchers “pitch to the score”. That CC (and others) approach hitters differently (by pitch type and location) when ahead by many runs than they do when ahead by one or two. The argument the statistics make is that this doesn’t make any difference statistically for pitchers as good as CC and Jack Morris and… Over the long run their results when pitching with the former approach are the same as they are with the latter approach because they’re simply really good at, you know, pitching. Some of the outs may be accomplished differently (some strikeouts are exchanged for fewer walks) but the overall result is the same.

  3. QCS says:

    By any definition, pitching to the score means that a pitcher was not doing his absolute best every time he was out there, and that does not scream “Hall of Fame” to me.

  4. olderholden says:

    I think “both Steves” speak to the question.

    Back to the golf analogy: if you had the same putt, and instead of two different venues, the question was two different scenarios: that is, if you needed to two-putt to win the Open, or you had to jar it to win.

    The axiom in golf is: “hit an aggressive shot to a conservative position.” Why risk a three-putt for the glory of winning by two instead of one?

    There is something about this that will present a challenge to the most in-depth metrical examination: pounding the zone, situationally picking off an out for an advancing baserunner, etc. is the mark of a very competent pitcher, isn’t it? But, pounding the zone, etc. may not produce a result of more runs for the opposition. One suspects that another possible result is a shorter game! (Accounting for “half-defeated” opponents dreaming of fried chicken and beer right after the game, the zone-pounding pitcher could miss as many bats as the surgical-approach pitcher nursing a 1-0 lead.)

    The goal is “W”, not run differential. Leading 9-2 with one out in the eighth in a non-division game in mid-August is a time when the best pitchers know how (and can) “cozy it up there” for a tap-in victory.

    • The thing is, what you’re describing just doesn’t really happen. To use the putting analogy, the numbers say that every pitcher is effectively trying to sink the putt with one shot. (I don’t really like this analogy. Baseball just isn’t that straightforward. But anyway…)

      Take someone like Justin Verlander – his numbers are actually *better* in low-leverage situations than in medium- or high-leverage situations. Not by much, mind you – he’s excellent in *any* situation – but he certainly hasn’t been better in the clutch.

      I’d like to see Reynolds or other commentators who feel they can identify a clutch/pitch-to-the-score pitcher to produce a *list* of clutch pitchers. Because, sure, some pitchers actually have demonstrably better results in the clutch – Halladay, for one, though it’s largely driven by a lower BABIP – and I’d like to see how the perception matches up with the evidence.

    • olderholden says:

      This comment has been removed by the author.

    • olderholden says:

      I acknowledge that there is no present metrical support for what I wrote. What I am suggesting is that as a matter of common sense, a pitcher approaches his job differently in a 1-0 game versus a 9-2 game. The goal is the same. As I said, I have no suggestions about where the “proving” metrics may be, but I insist that my golf metaphor is applicable in a way that Joe’s isn’t. As to OUTCOMES of pitching in those two different scenarios, I leave that to the smart guys.

      Your observation about Verlander makes my point as well as it rebuts it. The matter is APPROACH, not result.

      Just one guy’s sense of how pitchers try to optimize performance . . .. (And born out by innumerable post-game interviews with the day’s pitchers.)

    • BobDD says:

      . . . well, if approach is what mattered more than results, then we would have Olympic judges handing out style points instead of counting wins by who scored the most runs.

    • the problem with those innumerable post-game interviews is that you get so little information of any value from them. It’s like deriving a sense of how pitchers pitch from play-by-play guys. A lot of them have simply no idea, and you’re actually better off *not* listening to them if you don’t also know who’s *worth* listening to.

  5. CS says:

    The whole pitch to the score discussion reminds me of this exchange from The Office:

    Jim: Dwight, don’t you need health insurance?
    Dwight: Don’t need it. Perfect immunity. I can raise and lower my cholesterol at will.
    Pam: Why would you need to raise your cholesterol?
    Dwight: So I can lower it.

  6. Mike says:

    I think the pitch to the score thing illustrates the disconnect between “approach” and “results”. As Sheehan said in his initial study, there was evidence that Morris changed his approach with a big lead. But there was no evidence that this manifested in different results. These are major league pitchers and major league hitters. Your fastball didn’t suddenly become more hittable just because you have a 7-0 lead. It might be in the zone a bit more if you’re not trying to hit the corners. But it’s still a major league pitch that batters can struggle with even when they know it’s coming.

    • djangoz says:

      Agreed, pitchers do change their approach based on score. But the point is that none of the pitchers we’re discussing seem to “get better” in close games or “ease up” and give up more runs in blowouts.

      The idea that a poor ERA can be explained away by “yeah, but he pitched to the score” is simply false.

  7. Michael says:

    To reach WAY back, I have read that Walter Johnson would ease up a bit on those rare occasions when the Washington Senators were way ahead in a game. His 56 inning scoreless streak ended, supposedly, in part because the Senators got way ahead. True? I don’t know, but the day it ended, his Senators beat the Browns 10-5, so, if staked to a big lead, he might have eased up a bit, which meant, for him, going down to a 95 mph fastball.

    • brhalbleib says:

      And that era (believe it or not) is where the myth of pitching to the score started. B/c in the dead ball era, you could pitch differently in different situations. If the bases were empty in a 5-0 game against the tail end of the lineup when about 1 person per team had the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark, it made sense for The Big Train to not necessarily throw his best fastballs. I suspect that is why dead ball pitchers could throw 300 or 400+ inning seasons.

      But that changed with the live ball. It would appear that the idea that you could let up a little at certain times of the game, and then bear down when you had to did not go away when the reality that that was possible did.

  8. asdfasfd says:

    The Yankees play “New York, New York” after every home game, not just after wins.

    • Will H. says:

      Until about ten years ago they only played Sinatra’s version after wins, but Liza Minelli complained that hers was the loser’s version, so now it’s always Sinatra.

    • mickey says:

      Liza’s version is the better version, regardless of how the Yankees do. This song should not be associated with Sinatra’s weak effort.

  9. purebull says:

    pitching to the score just sounds damn dumb. you’d coast til you got into trouble, and somehow you found the grit and intensity to bear down when it matters most.

    sounds stupid as shit, really.

    on the other hand…is it true? there’s all kinds of…anectdotal evidence that folks believe it, or even that it happened, for reals, back in the day when no black folks were allowed into the club, and bats weighed 73oz, and the ball was deader than a priests nutsack is sposed to be…

    it’s probably not true, any more. there’s too many guys going for power now, since the game’s continued to change.

    and…joe. i love your writing. i think we got it…just like the folks at baseball think factory rode their love of (a deserving) blyleven into the misty musty cooperstown…you’re going to ride the anti morris donkey til no one on earth every fucking dares disagree with you.

    dude, we got it. jesus.

  10. invitro says:

    The Harold Reynolds types are not interested in the truth, and I don’t see any wisdom in debating them. They are only interested in preserving their narrative, facts be damned.

    The argument should be directed at people whose mind is not made up -and- who accept facts. I believe, perhaps naively, there are a lot of these people.

    If I believed that Jack Morris pitched to the score, and was defending his 3.90 ERA, I would probably first say that a lot of that ERA shouldn’t count, because Jack gave up those runs when it didn’t matter.

    I would counter that with the simplest argument I can think of: present Jack’s ERA in innings that started with the score close, vs. his ERA in innings that started with one team having a big lead. That’s only two numbers, using a stat that all baseball fans understand.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know the two numbers, or how to calculate them :(.

  11. Kurt says:

    Absolutely we need to look at more than just wins and losses. If a pitcher don’t pitch to the score, then why does baseball only sometimes give a special designation to the relief pitches who’s the last one to pitch in a winning game – a save. We’re willing to grant this pitcher a save for those situations where the score is deemed close enough, but when the score is 7-1 and the guy strikes out the side in the 9th inning and his team wins the game, we just call that a good outing.

    The pitcher, like any human who’s honest with them self, raises, or lowers, what they’re doing to circumstances around them. Pitching in baseball is more complicated than just wins, losses, and your ERA.

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  13. Chip S. says:

    Purebull has already invoked Christy Mathewson here, but why not let one of the five original first-ballot HoFers speak for himself on the subject?

    I have always been against a twirler pitching himself out, when there is no necessity for it, as so many youngsters do. They burn them through for eight innings and then, when the pinch comes, something is lacking. A pitcher must remember that there are eight other men in the game, drawing more or less salary to stop balls hit at them, and he must have confidence in them. Some pitchers will put all that they have on each ball. This is foolish for two reasons.

    No spoilers here. Smart fans ought to be able to figure out Mathewson’s two reasons.

  14. Luis says:

    In business (and any student for that matter), we call “pitching to the score” procrastination. If something is due, let’s say, next wednesday, I’ll start on Tuesday. We all know the feeling, we are out of time and ran out of excuses, but have the balls to describe it as “I work better under pressure”

    Folks, pitching to the score doesn’t make sense. This is one of those things that makes sense to us and then try to fit the evidence into what we believe is true.

  15. 1. are we saying pitchers don’t alter location/pitch selection if they are winning by a large margin? curious to see what the group thinks?

    2. what if they are but the numbers aren’t showing it? if a pitcher tells you after the game that he “pitched to the score” but it’s not reflected in any discernible way in the metrics that we are currently using, does that mean it didn’t happen?

    • I would agree that a pitcher is likely to change his approach with a big lead. The thing about ‘pitching to the score’ is that big wins don’t all follow the same scenario where the lead is built in the early innings.

      If Jack Morris is losing 6-2 in the fourth inning but the Tigers wind up taking a 7-6 lead before he leaves the game, did he pitch to the score? Or do all of his wins follow some pattern where he manages to only give up one fewer run that the Tigers manage to score at any given time? Did he somehow figure that the hitters were due for a big inning when he allowed a two-run single to fall behind 3-1? Or did he tend to give up lots of runs late when he had a big lead?

      My guess is that there is no pattern. That he had his good days and bad days, and sometimes that meant that he won 11-2 or 8-7 or 1-0 and sometimes he lost 6-3 or 8-5. Just like any other pitcher.

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  18. Actually with regard to “pitching to the score” in golf there certainly is a difference and the example Joe gives is incomplete and probably doesn’t apply. The appropriate question about the two puts in his example is “what’s the score”?
    If you can spare two puts to win then you don’t necessarily try to make the first put; you guard against a three-put. You make sure the first put doesn’t roll on by the whole to the extent the comebacker is difficult. If you have no strokes to give then you ram the first one up there. Right? I still agree with the thesis that in baseball “pitching to the score” whether it’s a real intent by the pitcher or not, makes no difference in the results. Kinda like how one batter doesn’t protect another.

  19. I swear all those “puts” were “putts”.

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  21. Rob Smith says:

    The crux of the issue is that EVERY starting pitcher, now and then, is presented a big lead of 5 runs, or more. At that point, every pitcher will throw more strikes, avoid walks at all cost and possibly give up a HR (or an extra run) somewhere in there. This, like everything else, averages out for all pitchers. So, pitching to the score happens. But it happens for all pitchers. The issue is whether they actually win close games more often than other pitchers. I haven’t seen any evidence that Morris does that…. except in the 1991 World Series, of course. It’s nonsense, which is what Harold Reynolds is best known for.

  22. Lazerus Hope says:

    No discussion of the batters? If the pitchers change their approach with big leads and in those same games the batters also change their approach then it is possible for the two negate each other and produce zero statistical difference. The 1-0, “reach for something extra” moments are harder to believe in however. It is silly to have an argument over a term if you and I don’t think it means the same thing. I hear “pitch to the score” and I think a pitcher throwing different pitches in different locations based on the score of the game. I believe that happens.

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  24. Reagan says:

    I’ve read all of Joe’s articles (and the comments) on this issue of whether Morris pitched to the score, and, well, I have a few comments. Here are two analyses that won’t settle the issue: (a) an analysis of Jack Morris’s ERA broken down by how many runs his team scored (something Joe presented in another article) and (b) an analysis of Jack Morris’s ERA by inning (see one of the comments above). The problem with these is that they don’t tell us if Morris tailored his pitching to the demands of the situation any more or less than what other pitchers did when faced with similar situations. Isn’t that statement (i.e., Morris was more willing than other pictures to give up runs in exchange for outs in games in which he had a comfortable lead, thereby raising his ERA) the essence of the “pitching to the score” argument made by people in support of Morris (an argument made to defend his rather unspectacular ERA)?

    My point? Any analysis of Morris’s performance without a comparison to other pitchers cannot answer the fundamental question. There are plenty of other reasons as to why Morris’s ERA can vary by inning or by how many runs his team has scored. Many of these alternative explanations were given in the comments by the readers.

    My suggestion is to perform some version of the following analysis: a comparison of Morris’s ERA in the final two innings of games where his team was up by some safe margin (three or more runs for example) at the start of the 8th as compared to other pictures in the same situations. Obviously, care should be taken to insure that the pitchers chosen for the comparison are, in fact, comparable. Perhaps their overall ERA (or first inning ERA) could be used as a control variable.

  25. Reagan says:

    Thought more about this, and I realized that you could use the pitcher’s performance over the first seven innings as a control for the last two. This would allow you to compare Morris to any other pitcher (or group of pitchers) to see if he (Morris) eased up in the late innings of a secure win more than they did.

    To summarize the analysis I’m proposing: (a) examine only games where Morris and comparison pitcher(s) pitched past the seventh inning (doesn’t have to be a complete game, although that might be a nice supplement to this analysis), (b) from this set of games, examine only those where Morris and the comparison pitcher(s) had a nice lead at the end of the seventh inning, say three runs, (c) compute ERA for the first seven innings (we’ll call it ERA7) and for the innings after the seventh (we’ll call it ERA8+) for these games for Morris and the comparison pitcher(s), (d) compute the difference between the ERA in the late innings and the rest of the game (i.e., ERAdiff = ERA8+ – ERA7) for each game for Morris and the comparison pitchers (if you’re a fan of regression analysis, you could do this by computing the residual scores from the regression of ERA8+ on ERA7), and finally (e) compare the mean ERAdiff for Morris to the mean ERAdiff for the comparison pitchers. If Morris truly was pitching to the score (and thus inflating his overall ERA in ways that were irrelevant to his greatness as a pitcher), then his ERAdiff should be greater than those of comparison pitchers.

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