Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Pitching Wins Championships

"Defense wins championships." Whether accurate or not, this is perhaps the oldest adage in sports. Every year come playoff time in the NFL, when the dust finally settles and the analysts look back at the 11 postseason games played, the conclusion drawn is almost invariably the same: good defense neutralizes good offense ... defense wins championships.

Now that the Indianapolis Colts are once again steamrolling towards the playoffs with once again no real defense to speak of and once again seemingly destined for a "shocking" early-round exit, it got me to thinking. In baseball, we hear hitters admit from time to time that good pitching does in fact neutralize good hitting. However, almost never do we hear the phrase: "pitching wins championships." Should we? Let's take a closer look.

Here are selected regular season statistic ranks for the past 10 World Series champion pitching staffs within their respective leagues, along with the 2006 Cardinals postseason statistic ranks:

You can certainly argue with the statistics I have chosen to include, but you cannot, however, argue with the one, obvious conclusion: the 2006 Cardinals are a pitching anamoly and a statistical outlier. Over the past 10 seasons (using 15 as the denominator - the average number of teams/league), the World Series champion pitching staff has performed in the top 30% of their respective league. If you remove the 2006 Cardinals from this calculation, that number drops to the top 25%. In other words, excluding the Cardinals, the average World Series champ has had a pitching staff ranking 3.75 out of 15 teams in its respective league, not coincidentally less than 4, the number of teams making the postseason each year from the AL/NL. The question then becomes, what about hitting?

Again, you can argue with the statistics I've chosen to include. However, this analysis paints a completely different picture. The average World Series champion's lineup performed in the top 40% of their respective leagues, just slightly better than average. With regards to hitting, the 2006 Cardinals were much more in line with historical norms; removing the Cardinals lowers the overall percentile less than 1 percent, equivalent to 5.68 out of 15 teams. In contrast to the average pitching rank, this position is not playoff-qualifying.

Now, in case you don't agree with my chosen statistics, just take a look at the most fundamental pitching vs. hitting analysis. To win, you must score more runs that your opponent. Thus, a comparison of ERA vs. runs scored is in order. The average World Series pitching staff ranked 4/15 in ERA and 3.3/15 excluding the Cardinals. This equates to the top 22% in their respective league and is playoff qualifying. On the other hand, the average World Series lineup ranked 4.9/15 in runs scored
and 4.8/15 excluding the Cardinals. This corresponds to the top 32% in their respective league and is not playoff qualifying.

Either way you look at it, the conclusion is pretty clear: pitching, more than hitting, is responsible for a team making the postseason. The average World Series champion pitching staff would qualify for the playoffs, but the average World Series champion lineup would not. So while I believe it is naive to say "BLANK wins championships," at least statistically speaking, good pitching does historically make the postseason, whereas good hitting does not necessarily. And as this past season showed, if you make it to the postseason, you can win the World Series, but if you don't even qualify, you have absolutely no chance. Thus, albeit indirectly, pitching does win championships. I expect that if you performed a similar analysis for the NFL, you would find similar results. So, to be fair, maybe we should say "pitching wins championships" a little more often, or at least the inverse (which may be more true), "Poor pitching loses championships."

All this being said, the 2006 Cardinals are still the World Series champions. I imagine that there have been similarly-poor pitching staffs that have qualified for the postseason before, but none (at least in the last 10 years) have won it all. The Cardinals pitching staff was so bad this year and such an outlier that it was the only World Series champion staff to 1) rank in the bottom half of its respective league in more than half of the categories I selected and 2) average overall in the bottom 50% of its respective league (40% compared to the next to worst staff at 63%). What happened in the postseason then? Although there is certainly an n-problem with postseason stats (due to both a skewed and limited number of games between participating teams), the Cardinals staff was tops in ERA and ranked overall in the top 30% of the playoff teams (in line with the normal regular season average for World Series champs). On the other hand, the lineup actually underperformed compared to the regular season. So again, what happened?

Purely from observation, it always seems that, in the postseason: 1) hitters become tight/over-anxious and expand their strike zones (see Albert Pujols in the NLCS/World Series) and 2) umpires physically enlarge the strike zone. Now, consider that the one thing Cardinals pitchers did well in the regular season was not walk batters and we may have our explanation. It is well-documented that the current Cardinals staff performs best when they pitch to contact and pound the strike zone. When the strike zone becomes enlarged (both by the hitters and the umpire), this plays directly into the hands of the Cardinals staff, directly and drastically increasing stikeouts while decreasing hits and ERA, all of which were observed in the postseason for the Cards. This phenomenon would especially explain Jeff Suppan's relative dominance in the postseason, as he is practically the textbook example of a nibbler who needs a large strike zone to be effective. However, as a supplementary explanation, we certainly should not discount the lack of "the enigma known as Jason Marquis" on the postseason roster.

Nevertheless, we cannot lose sight of the fact that in most years with the same pitching staff, the Cardinals would have been at home come October. Arguably, the main reason the Cardinals were so successful in 2004-2005 was their consistent pitching. Save for deciding on the Jim Edmonds situation (I am pleased with the outcome), addressing the pitching staff, and in particular the starting rotation, must be the true offseason priority (as Walt Jocketty claims). Unfortunately for Jocketty, in the current, egregiously-inflated market, there are neither simple nor cheap decisions to be made. An analysis of the starting pitching options, along with my preferred course of action, will be the subject of my next post (hopefully preceded by my brother's inaugural post on the value of super-subs).

Lastly, since I had already compiled what I deemed to be the most important pitching and hitting statistics (that were easily accessible as far back as 10 years ago), I thought it would be both interesting and fun to see if in fact the 2006 Cardinals are the "Worst Series Champion," at least for the Wild Card era (sans 95/96).

Weighting pitching and hitting evenly, here are the results:
1) 1998 Yankees: 2.40
2) 2001 D'Backs: 2.65
3) 2004 Red Sox: 3.00
4) 1999 Yankees: 4.00
5) 2002 Angels: 5.25
6) 2000 Yankees: 5.40
7) 2005 White Sox: 6.45
8) 2003 Marlins: 6.70
9) 1997 Marlins: 6.90
10) 2006 Cardinals: 7.90

The worst is first!


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