Sporting Charts

Ball Control - Everyone Knows Pitching Wins Championships

"Good pitching will beat good hitting any time, and vice versa." ~ Bob Veale

Baseball is the only sport in which the defense initiates the play. The pitcher is the one in control.

In fact, pitching is defined by control. Pitchers can't throw strikes without it. They control the speed, angle and location of each pitch. Pitchers are asked to control the game from the mound, take control of the count, and control their emotions.

But, is anyone ever in control? I like to be in control. Or, at least, I like the idea of being in control. It's not for everyone. With control comes pressure. With control comes responsibility. With control comes someone else wanting to assume control.

Try imagining two companies bidding for business. Before the customer makes their decision, each company must "deliver their pitch". Would you rather take initial control, make the first impression and set the bar? Or, do you want to have the last say, show the customer how you take control and "hit your pitch out of the park"?

Good Pitching Will Beat Good Batting Anytime


Arm-chair quarterbacks will profess that a Super Bowl can't be won without a great defense, you likely won't cut down the net without an experienced point guard, and it's near impossible to win the Stanley Cup without staunch goaltending. I am certain they are right.

They say the World Series is no different. No one pops champagne without an ace pitching staff. Good pitching will always beat good hitting. Sure, you will get the occasional Murderer's Row or Bash Brothers, but the best fireballers and firemen will prevail more often than not. Pitchers are the ones in control. And, I have set out to prove that the sofa savants are correct.

Pitchers used to be in much more control then they are now. Before 1969, the pitching rubber rested on a mound 15 inches above home plate. It now rests ten. This was not the only sweeping change in 1969. Baseball expanded to 24 teams. Kansas City, Seattle, Montreal and San Diego joined the fold and the league became too big for only one playoff Series. The League Championship Series (LCS) was born.

I thought 1969 was as good a year as any to begin my analysis of whether pitching led to titles. Starting that year, pitchers and hitters were on equal footing (or, at least no more than 10 inches from equal footing). I researched regular season statistics from 1969-2012 for every team that made the postseason.

I evaluated three statistics that most isolated the impact a pitcher has on a game. I assessed that a team's collective Strikeout Rate (K/9) and Walk Rate (BB/9) met my criteria; however, nothing best quantified the strength of a team's staff like Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP).

For those like me who are just catching up to the world of sabermetrics, FIP is a metric based on a concept similar to the one used for earned run average (i.e., the lower, the better). However, FIP excludes factors that are not in the pitcher's control, namely defensive play. FIP gives us a look at how a pitcher performs in categories where it is basically a two-player game, pitcher vs. batter. Each variable in the FIP formula is weighted based on its impact.

For example, teams playing in the 2012 postseason had the following collective team FIP during the 2012 regular season:

American League (AL)

National League (NL)

Team

FIP

Team

FIP

Detroit Tigers

3.63

Washington Nationals

3.54

Oakland Athletics

3.89

St. Louis Cardinals

3.62

Texas Rangers

3.90

Cincinnati Reds

3.72

New York Yankees

3.98

Atlanta Braves

3.74

Baltimore Orioles

4.20

San Francisco Giants

3.78

 

Among the AL playoff teams, the AL champion Tigers clearly had the best FIP and thus the best pitching staff. Their 2012 postseason pitching performances, including sweeping the powerful Yankees, should be less of a surprise.

The NL playoff teams had much less pitching disparity. These five playoff teams made up five of the top seven pitching staffs in the NL. The Giants may have had the highest 2012 regular season FIP of all the NL teams in the postseason, but it was not a stretch to see their pitching excel in the playoffs and carry the team all the way to the NL pennant.

On the other hand, the Nationals had by far the best arms by FIP standards. If pitching does win championships, then what happened to the Nationals?

National Disaster


It is the deciding game of the 2012 National League Division Series (NLDS) between the Washington Nationals and the reigning World Champion  St. Louis Cardinals. The Nats have seen an early stranglehold dissipate into the capital's night sky. It was 6-0. It is now 7-5. There are two outs in the top of the ninth. The Cards are up to bat, with two men on and David Freese at the plate. Drew Storen is on the mound. He only needs one more strike. For the moment, he is the one in control.

Freese is 29 years old, but hadn't played more than 100 games during a single regular season until this year. Yet, he has been there before. The Cardinals' sweet swinging third baseman has eerily faced this exact situation. He once before stood sixty feet, six inches from elimination. A year ago, he stood one strike away from someone else's World Series.

The 2011 World Series had already been memorable thanks to Albert Pujols' consummate Game 3. But, this series would be defined by Game 6. The game was postponed and replayed the next night. The game was marred early by errors. And, the Texas Rangers found themselves on the brink of their first World Series title. It was 7-5. There were two outs in the bottom of the ninth. The Cards were up to bat, with two men on and Freese at the plate. Neftali Feliz was on the mound. He too only needed one more strike. He too believed he was the one in control - we now know he wasn't. David Freese was.

Against the Rangers, Freese shot a triple opposite field to tie the game and send it into extras. For good measure, he sent the series to a Game 7 with his solo blast in the 11th.

This year, versus the Nationals, Freese awaited Storen's delivery. He saw the previous batter Yadier Molina work for a walk. Freese wondered if Storen had lost his control. He took the pitch. Ball four. Bases loaded. The next batter, Daniel Descalso, knocked in two to tie it up. Pete Kozma followed with a hit that squeaked through the infield and Freese crossed the plate with what would be the series-winning run. Descalso followed. Storen had lost control.

Good Hitting Will Beat Good Pitching Anytime


To analyze batters, I researched statistics that most isolated the impact a hitter has on a game. I focused on hitting only and ruled out stats that also recognized a player's speed and fielding. In the end, I chose to look at the sabermetric, Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA).

wOBA is a dynamic statistic that takes On-Base Percentage and Slugging a step further. Slugging, for example, weights each hit by how many bases you reach: 2 for a double, 3 for a triple, etc. However, wOBA recognizes that a double is worth more than twice a single because of its impact on producing runs. The factors used to determine wOBA are based on historical statistics that change each year as we learn more about the probabilities of baseball outcomes. In my mind, wOBA is clearly the best metric to isolate the performance of the men up to bat.

Similar to pitching, I have ranked the teams playing in the 2012 playoffs using their team wOBA from the 2012 regular season:

American League (AL)

National League (NL)

Team

wOBA

Team

wOBA

New York Yankees

.342

St. Louis Cardinals

.329

Texas Rangers

.336

Washington Nationals

.324

Detroit Tigers

.328

Cincinnati Reds

.314

Baltimore Orioles

.317

San Francisco Giants

.314

Oakland Athletics

.311

Atlanta Braves

.310

 

The fact that the Yankees have far and away the best hitters among AL postseason teams emphasizes how unlikely their offensive shutdown was this October. Despite being middle of the pack among AL postseason teams, the Tigers still have a wOBA well above the Orioles and A's; two teams that won more regular season games in much more competitive divisions.

Similar to the AL outcome, the Giants out-hit the Cardinals all the way to the NL title despite inferior hitting based on 2012 regular season statistics. The gap between the Cardinals and Giants was even wider considering Melky Cabrera of the Giants had a 2012 wOBA of .387, but was not on their postseason roster as he is serving a suspension for the use of performance enhancing drugs.

Underdogs affirm that all you must do is make the playoffs and then anything can happen. In that regard, regular season statistics become challenging to apply because teams attempt to gain control one series at a time. How would these results apply when the season is down to one final seven game series?

2012 World Series


Comparing the 2012 World Series contenders reveals the following imbalance favouring the Tigers:

As the playoffs began, the Tigers were not seen as World Series favourites despite above average pitching and hitting. Their regular season win total was less than any of their AL postseason competition. They won six fewer games than the Giants did. But, did anyone care to look at their lineup featuring Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder? In the World Series, the Tigers seemingly hold the advantage with the better pitchers and the better hitters.

There have been 204 playoff series completed from 1969 until now excluding one-game playoffs and wild card games. 87 of these series matched a team better in both pitching and hitting than their opponent. The following table breaks down the results:

 

Series

Success Rate of  Teams with Better  Pitching and Hitting

Success Rate of  Teams with Worse  Pitching and Hitting

League Division Series (LDS)

53%

47%

League Championship Series (LCS)

56%

44%

World Series

46%

54%

Entire Playoffs Combined

53%

47%

 

These outcomes show how evenly matched the best teams are. In particular, the World Series outcomes are stunning with the lesser statistical teams winning more often than not. However, factors such as home field advantage can make a difference if AL pitchers must step to the plate for an additional game.

Similar results were observed in series pitting a team better at hitting versus a team with more successful pitching. The following table breaks down the results of all 117 occurrences since 1969:

 

Series

Success Rate of  Better Pitching Teams over  Better Hitting Teams

Success Rate of  Better Hitting Teams over  Better Pitching Teams

League Division Series (LDS)

64%

36%

League Championship Series (LCS)

42%

58%

World Series

55%

45%

Entire Playoffs Combined

52%

48%

 

The results show a slight edge to pitching staffs overall, but are heavily weighted to the LDS where games are only a best of five series. A couple good pitchers can all but guarantee you move on in a shorter series. However, the results were not much different when only examining seven game series. In the longer series, better pitching was victorious 51% of the time.

By the fall classic, the pennant winners have already endured a long season and two tightly contested playoff rounds. You don't make it to the World Series with mediocre anything. If you don't have the better pitching and hitting, more often than not you don't trail too far behind. In October, the regular season is less of a predictor. It's all about who is hot at the moment. And, both teams are playing their best. No one has the edge. Unpredictability reigns.

In fact, the Giants have proven this year (and before) that the long 162-game regular season can be disregarded once October rolls around. San Francisco has heated up at the right time. This September they were dominating on the mound (FIP = 3.71) and peaking at the plate (wOBA = 3.36). However, this September was nothing like the 2010 squad with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Brian Wilson that entered the playoffs with an incomparable 2.89 September FIP. We know how that story ended. The Giants carried that momentum to their first World Series in 56 years.

Playoffs always bring a second gear. They bring a level of excitement not often felt during the regular season. Tension is maximized. Seasons are in the balance. Unexpected results abound. Teams jostle for control. Teams like Cincinnati and St. Louis can jump out to early series leads and a team like San Francisco can come storming back. Those thinking they have assumed control of a series are fooling themselves until the last out is recorded.

Your pitching staff can be on fire, but control can switch in a heartbeat with the swing of one bat, a taken ball four or a botched throw to second base. You could think you are entering the playoffs with the most dominating hitters in the league, but the right pitching can mire you in a deep slump.

Bob Veale


Bob Veale pitched for the  Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960's and the  Boston Red Sox in the early 70's. Veale had a nice career and knew a thing or two about control. In the prime of his career, Veale was known for throwing heat and being a league leader in strikeouts. He was also known for losing his control and handing out free passes. Veale led the NL in walks four times during his tenure with the Pirates.

Veale epitomized baseball's constant battle between pitchers and hitters - the confrontation between those who have control and those who want to take it away. Veale would say that "good pitching will beat good hitting anytime, and vice versa." Everyone knows pitching wins championships. But, whether Veale looked down towards hitters from 15 inches or ten, he knew hitting won championships too. 


Bob Sullivan writes periodically for  SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at  @mrbobsullivan .

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