Does good pitching beat good hitting in October?

If you type good pitching into a Google search, it will attempt to complete to the aphorism good pitching beats good hitting, whereupon you will receive more than 300,000 results. Stick it in quotation marks and you get more than 11,000 results; if you say “good hitting beats good pitching,” however, you get 75. I’m sure you fairly well knew that, though; when it comes down to the playoffs at least, the fans would prefer an ace-heavy team to a lineup of studs if they could only choose one.

But does the time-honored saying hold up? From my basic (though time-consuming) look at the subject, I’d say … kinda. Follow me through a few musings and lists, and the answer isn’t that well-defined.

Basics

Perhaps the easiest way to look at the data is to compile playoff game scores to see when good hitting was actually beaten, and by whom it was beaten. On the flipside, we can also see when good hitting beat pitching both good and bad and compare and contrast the totals. For this exercise, good hitting is any team with an OPS+ of at least 105; every league since 1903 has had at least one team with this total, and every playoff season except 1959 has had at least one team with this total. The Red Sox (108) and Cubs (109) of this year qualify; last year’s entrants were the Red Sox (107), Yankees (118), and Phillies (111). About 80 percent of teams in the playoffs have had at least a 105.

Good pitching will be any pitcher with an ERA+ of 115. Although ERA+ is not the world’s best measure, we’re examining a saying involving fan/media perception, and guys with an ERA+ of 115 and a handful of wins usually get some Cy Young consideration. 115 is about where Steve Avery was in the early ’90s, as was Joey Jay as the Reds’ ace in 1961. La Marr Hoyt won a Cy Young off a 115 and 24 wins in 1983. It’s not amazing pitching or anything, but it’s where you can safely say that the pitching’s at least good.

Pitching will beat good hitting—a “gem”—if the final score was one or no runs, and good hitting will beat pitching—a “dud”—if the final score was seven or more runs. Bullpens rarely take an outstanding performance in October and ruin it completely (the main example is the Steve Bartman game, but the Marlins’ offense wasn’t even at 105 OPS+, so it doesn’t count here).

The bottom line is that if the saying is true, by this study pitchers with an ERA+ of 115 or greater should be allowing one or zero runs to offenses at 105 or greater OPS+ far more often than they give up seven or more. Conversely, pitchers with worse ERA+ should provide the bulk of ugly games to good offenses.

Data

From 1903 through this year’s Divisional Series, there have been 1,214 playoff games and therefore 2,428 team scores (since every game has two teams). Of these, good hitting has been beaten 315 times and has done the beating 259 times. The former figure is almost 13 percent of all outcomes, while the latter is 10.7 percent. So, on average, for every 10 games that good hitting is shut down, there are 8 where good hitting slaughters. The advantage goes to pitching overall, but the advantage is not so great that a short series will hold true to that advantage.

If we limit our outcomes to starts from good pitchers, things get better. Good hitting has been shut down by good pitching 209 times and by other pitching 106 times. On the other side, good hitting has massacred good pitching 151 times and other pitching 108 times. Instead of the 10-to-8 ratio of shutdowns to slaughters, good pitchers bump that up to 11-to-8, whereas it’s a grab bag with the back end of a rotation, with as many gems as duds. Not that this is useful in anything but hindsight, but Hall of Famers have thrown 60 gems and only 14 duds against good hitting teams. So if your favorite team can sign a living Hall of Famer for the stretch run, obviously your chances are better. Look for Steve Carlton and Don Sutton to face off in game 4 of the NLCS for a hotly contested matchup where few runs shall be tallied.

Data 2: Return of the aces

While the foregoing indicates that a small-but-tangible advantage is gained from having good pitching, one further breakdown brings it into question. What about good pitchers against great hitting teams? I broke down the good and bad starts from good and mediocre pitchers into strata by opponent OPS+ to find a pattern or a dividing line, and got a pretty definite one:

                 115+ ERA+:Gems-Duds  114- ERA+:Gems-Duds 
Overall          209-151              106-108
105-113 OPS+     134-94               88-72
114+ OPS+        75-57                18-36     

The dividing line between 113 and 114 for OPS+ is so clear it’s transparent: mediocre pitchers fare at least reasonably until they get to a 114 offense, at which point a one or no run performance is highly unlikely. The 75-57 figure is very close to the overall 11-to-8 ratio seen above—not quite as good, but in line with what you’d expect as the hitting gets better. Setting the good pitcher bar at 130 or better ERA+, those pitchers near 2-to-1 (49-29 to be exact) on gems to duds against offenses sitting at 114 or better OPS+, just as they do overall (129-75).

Conclusion

The following seems warranted:

First, great pitchers will be all right no matter what caliber of offense they face;
Second, good pitchers will still do well, but against an amazing offense they will have their difficulties;
Third, don’t throw mediocre pitchers up there against good offenses—just don’t;
Fourth, while the phrase “good pitching beats good hitting” is largely true, it does not hold so strongly true that you should bet your bottom dollar on the team with the best pitching. Good pitching has nice chances against good hitting, but not so good that the game’s outcome is anywhere close to inevitable just because an ace is on the mound.

The phrase is useful, but not controlling or predictive of a short series; it’s more a silver nugget of baseball truth than it is a gold one. Good pitching beats good hitting … except when it doesn’t.

References & Resources
B-ref is all over this article. Also, in making this article, I have an Excel file with every postseason game that factored into the data, so if you want to play with the data yourself, e-mail me and I’ll get it to you.

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