Last time, I put up the framework for several studies based on giving letter grades to team fielding, pitching, and batting components. Now it’s time to take a broad look at one of those time-honored, rarely tested adages: Do pitching and defense win championships?
In distill of the night
There are a couple of questions wrapped up in the adage. It’s relevant to ask whether they win ballgames in the first place, whether one can win without the other, and whether their winning ballgames is in different proportion to their winning championships.
There are 320 playoff teams and 99 world championships through 2005, where my edition of the ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia cuts off. The following chart shows the 320 teams sorted by frequency of grade per component (top to bottom is A to F):
So right there we can see a couple pertinent items. While a variety of skill sets can make the playoffs, if your team has a D or F it’s going to be awfully hard to get there. If your available talent forces you to have a weakness, make it hitting, sure; but that’s not the same as saying pitching and defense are the important things.
Now take a look at the frequency of world championship teams by grade:
Although the graph by itself says that fielding is the most indicative of championships (after all, 64 A fielders produced 31 winners), that’s misleading due to the slight uptick in A fielders from the days before multiple-tiered playoff systems, due to a game that used to revolve more around its fielders.
The D/F playoff teams are remarkably absent from the world champions, save for offense. It’s probably those weird teams that have propped up the adage far more than is deserved. Examples of champions with weak offenses include the 1906 White Sox (AAD), the 1969 Mets (BAF; the ’73 Mets were also BAF, and they’re the only two F-offense playoff teams), the 1995 Braves (BAD), and the 2005 White Sox (BAD, although their win is muted by the Angels and Astros also profiling as BAD).
What’s probably more accurate to say, then, is that pitching and defense occasionally enable weak offenses to win championships. But even that doesn’t paint a very realistic picture. Don’t even think about a championship if you have D or F pitching. The lone exception is the 1913 Athletics, whose AFA profile is the only F pitching to make the playoffs. The D pitching came closest to winning a championship with the 1982 Brewers (CDA), but the rest of the teams mostly are bad modern entries, like the 1997 Mariners or the 2005 Padres. Realistically, you’re going to need A or B pitching with at least C fielding.
But while D offenses sometimes win, the A offenses are most associated with winning, even more than A pitching. 54 A-hitting champions out of 149 teams is 36 percent odds, better than the 32 percent of A pitching (53 of 165). The difference is slight, but in testing our initial adage it’s relevant; the mashers don’t get into the playoffs as often as the aces, but they’re at least equals once they’re there. The 1932 Yankees (CCA), 1957 Braves (BCA), and 1976 Reds (ACA) are fine examples of teams winning with crushing offenses and little regard to who’s on the mound.
Of course, while we’ve answered some of the question, we haven’t answered whether pitching and defense are linked, e.g. we haven’t seen teams with only one or the other. We’ve seen that pitching and defense can compensate for bad offenses (1995 Braves and friends), but can pitching compensate for bad defense?
As it turns out, not really. Four teams have made the playoffs with F fielding and A pitching: the 1912 Giants (FAA), 1965 Twins (FAA), and 1983/85 Dodgers (FAC/FAB). The 1908 Tigers and 1971 Giants were both FCAs; neither fared well in October. Occasionally the reverse will happen and a team that’s only good with the glove will win—the 1987 Twins (ACD) and the 2003 Marlins (ACB) lead the pack there—but that’s not a model you want to emulate, especially the former.
It wasn’t until 1921 that a team without A fielding won a World Series. Since then, fielding has decreased in importance, but that’s not to say a sloppy team will
win; like pitching, fielding has a minimum level of competence for any championship team. That said, once the minimum’s in place, it’s anybody’s game, and if you can meet those minima while having a team of mashers, you may be in the best configuration to win. If I had my druthers (and let’s face it, who doesn’t want their druthers?), I’d take my chances with a random Joe McCarthy or Sparky Anderson team over the ’95 Braves or ’05 White Sox, and I think you would too.
So while it’s unproven that pitching and defense win championships—indeed, the best link is with offense—bad pitching and defense can sabotage championships in a way that bad hitting doesn’t. But there’s far more potential to rack up wins with an offense, and if your pitching and defense are serviceable, then the offense is the key to success. You can pull out miracle seasons with bad offense, but why count on that when you could just hit your way to glory?
References & Resources
Same as last time, with a check on the connotation and etymology of druthers at the very end. It turns out the word is only as old as the National Association, being condensed from a corruption of “I’d rather” (namely, “I’d ruther”) that somehow got turned into a noun.