EconoBall: Pitching Wins Championships?

This article started with a conversation at Mullins before the UA Game.  I believe it was Denizen Kane who suggested it, but I’m not entirely sure.  If I got it wrong, put it in the comments and I’ll give you credit.

We’ve heard a lot that Pitching wins championships.  The questions is, does history bear this out?  Is it possible that hitting gets you to the postseason but pitching wins championships?

To answer this question, I put together a data set that contains hitting and pitching data for every team and every season from 1998 to 2013.  The end dates were chosen because 1998 was the first season that included 30 major league teams — many of you will remember that was the year the Diamondbacks and Rays entered the league.  For 2012 and 2013, I had to deal with the wild card.  I decided to simply treat the loser of that game as missing the playoffs.  That way, I consider the performance of 8 postseason teams every year.

Next, I had to define the question.  I decided to consider number of wins.  Specifically, I consider whether good pitching leads to more wins than good hitting in the regular season?  Then, I ask the same question in the postseason.

Next came the question of how to define hitting and pitching.  I settled upon two different indicators for hitting: wRC+ and OPS.  For pitching, I use FIP.  (I also got results using ERA.  They are almost identical to FIP and, thus, omitted.)  Since FIP, OPS, and wRC+ are measured in different ways, I needed a way to directly compare the results.  I decided to use the impact of a one standard deviation change in the underlying statistic.  I’ve linked to a technical defintion of standard deviation for people that are interested.  The short version, however, is that standard deviation measures how much higher or lower than than the mean the “average” observation is.  As I’m using it, you can think of it as the impact of the same relative improvement in pitching and hitting on games won.

The results for wRC+ suggest that hitting is very slightly more important than pitching.  A one standard deviation increase in wRC+ leads to 7.06 more wins in the regular season and .61 more wins in the postseason.  A similar decrease in FIP leads to 4.86 more wins in the regular season and .43 more wins in the postseason.

When I consider OPS instead of wRC+, the results shift as well.  In the regular season, hitting and pitching are equally valuable — leading to improvements of 8.10 wins per season and 8.01 wins per season, respectively.  In the postseason, pitching increases wins by about .72 wins per team while hitting only increases wins by about .58 wins per team.

Given this, it seems that hitting and pitching have similar impact on performance in both the regular season and postseason play.  This could be deceptive, though, because we ultimately are interested not in how many games they win, but do they make it to the playoffs and, once there, do they win the World Series?

I can happily report that analyzing this question leads to a rosier conclusion for Cubs fans.  (The results are similar for both sets of offensive numbers, so here I will focus on OPS.)  A one standard deviation increase in either pitching or hitting has almost the same impact on making the playoffs: a 22% increase for hitting and a 21% increase for pitching.  However, one they are in the playoffs, an improved offense increases your chances of winning the world series by 4% while an improved pitching staff increases your chances of winning the world series by less than 1%.

Taken together, these results suggest a couple things.  First, good teams in the regular season tend to win more games and make the playoffs, regardless of whether they have good hitting or good pitching or, ideally, both.

However, once you make the playoffs, things subtly change.  Pitching may help a team win more games by extending a series but, in the end, the numbers suggest that better hitters do tend to triumph over better pitchers.

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  • Always kind of simplistic to desire to isolate only one area of greatest importance. There are three main phases to baseball: hitting, pitching and fielding. A team has to excel in at least two of the three to have a chance to win the World Series. This has always been the case. With the expansion of playoffs, this has changed slightly to teams needing excelling at two of the three at the end of the season -- i.e., peaking during post-season -- as happened with the Cardinals in 2006 and the Giants in 2010.

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    In reply to SkitSketchJeff:

    The idea of this type of analysis is not to find a "the" most important lthing but to analyze probabilities over long periods of time. Ultimately, baseball is a probabilistic game -- random stuff happens that makes it impossible to predict the outcomes perfectly. Nonetheless, it is unquestionable that Barry Bonds is more likely to get a hit than Francisco Cabrera regardless of how it played out in one specific game.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    I overlooked saying: nice piece. Always stimulating.

  • Mike - great research.

    What would happen if you used even simpler criteria? Specifically total runs scored and total runs allowed. Granted, it includes more than merely pitching, and probably more than just hitting, but I have never seen any stats that does a perfect job of isolating either.

    I am not sure what the exact question would be. Perhaps, do you gain more wins by reducing total runs allowed or by increasing total runs scored?

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    In reply to DaveP:

    It'll try it.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    I feel like a teacher handing out homework. I would do it myself, but my math skills are about equal to my writing skills.

  • Good article. Probably the best real world example of your research is the Atlanta Braves. Probably the best starting rotation many of us have ever or will ever see. And how many championships. One.

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    In reply to rob1872:

    I hadn't thought of them but it's not a bad example.

  • In reply to rob1872:

    I think the Atlanta Braves are a great example of how much pure luck plays in winning world series.

  • In reply to DaveP:

    Exactly this. Its not like they had bad offenses in all of those seasons. The Marlins have been to the postseason what, twice? They weren't the best team either year (well, maybe the 1997 team was) and won the Series both times. The Braves win 1/14. It is random. The best team may have the best odds of winning, but it does not always win, otherwise the best teams would win every series during the regular season too.

  • I like having both good pitching and good hitting.
    The Cubs will take care of the pitching part the next two offseasons. The day they become a serious threat is coming soon.

  • In reply to hoffpauir6:

    That would be the ideal situation Hoffpauir,....

    From all appearances the Cubs have already acquired an efficient (if not elite) set of pitchers. Especially this is apparent in the bullpen staff. A TOR type starter would be a good add - but we may already have those guys working their way up the pipeline too.

    The offense is extremely young - and definately needs to develop consistency - but that shows signs of having tons of extra-base ability, some signs of pitch selectivity (with the exception of Baez so far - but he'll get better) and that will likely consistently generate runs.

    I think come the latter half of 2015, and definately by 2016 - we'll see a Cubs team that has plus value on both sides - AND that plays excellent team defense.

  • Mike - I have been thinking about my question. Perhaps another approach would be

    does the subtraction of X runs per year produce more, less or the same amount of wins as the addition of X runs per year.

    I can see why the Cubs have a full time stats guy. As a General Manager I would like to know, for instance - if the Cubs score more runs than anyone else in baseball this year, do they gain more wins by bringing in pitching or by bringing in more hitting.

  • Thanks for the continued insight this series brings. It's articles like this that make Cubs Den readers some of the most knowledgeable in baseball. The writers and most of the commenters here seem to always have intelligent things to say and ask about. I wouldn't miss a day of reading!

  • A sure way to win the argument over whether pitching or hitting is more valuable is to accumulate BOTH!

  • The Atlanta Braves only managed to win one World Series during the Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz years, even though they were consistently in the postseason.

  • Man, I wish Soler would've played yesterday.
    Having him up there in the 1st could've changed everything.

  • Turner is locating his fastball well especially challenging the inner half but I wonder if the humidity is preventing him from getting the best grip on his slider?

  • In reply to Gator:

    The Ump squeezed Turner on the Braun at bat. Cleaned it up with the DP though

  • Ramirez!?!?! (followed by expletives)

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    Double play ball, Castro going 2nd to 3rd and once again he's looking back over his shoulder at the play instead of putting his head down and running.
    Maybe with the jumbotron he can watch the replays so had won't have to be a spectator on plays where he should be running. ;)

  • In reply to SKMD:

    Really? Of everything that happened in today's game (Soler's 2 extra base hits,Turner looking almost dominate, Ramirez and Rondon getting it done, just to name a few) we should be focusing on how Castro ran to 3rd on a 6-4-3? On a day he gets two hits and made all the plays? Man, some people just won't let up on this guy. Oh, wait, you're just being facetious to highlight how some people will pick any nit with Castro?

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    In reply to TTP:

    no, not being facetious - when the ball is in play, anything can happen. 2nd baseman throws it wild, it gets past the 1b - if Castro is running hard he scores, if not he stays at 3rd. We shouldn't overlook bad fundamentals just because it all worked out in the end. If you look at the next thread I posted in favor of not trading Castro for pitching - I like the guy a lot, I just think he makes the kind of little league mistakes that can cost games.

  • In reply to SKMD:

    I saw a way worse one than that today.

    When Aramis hit into a DP, he did not run!
    Trotted to first, was only halfway there when the DP was completed.
    I wasn't too impressed by that.

    If I'm the guy on first, I'm thinking "Why am I bustin' my ass trying to break this thing up if this $^%&* isn't even gonna run??"

  • In reply to hoffpauir6:

    And Aramis was Castro's "mentor" when he was first brought up. You know, the veteran player who shows the kids the ropes that everyone says is so important.

  • I will say - that at least when he is on - Turner has a lot of swing & miss to his game,.... although he's not very efficient.

    Something for Bosio and his staff to work with during the offseason though. Would love it if he ended up being even half as consistent as Arrieta.

  • Lots of good stuff so far from Turner. He has gotten better control of his slider as the game has gone on. I like how he is moving the ball around the zone. He is keeping the ball waist down. Would love to see him go 2 more innings if possible and leave on a high note.

    Castillo is giving him good targets and he is hitting them.

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    Good stuff as usual Mike!

    Everyone knows my stance on Castro by now. But as I'm watching this game it occurred to me that by next year the main focus of the Cubs will finally shift off of Castro. He's an exceptional SS but should never have been the main guy to look at when you examined the Cubs. He just sort of became that guy by default.

    In a perfect world a guy like Castro should be batting 6th in your lineup where he could just do what he does best; see the ball, hit the ball. 2015 is just going to be a blast!

  • In reply to bocabobby:

    I think Castro's see ball hit ball is better at the 2 spot. More opportunities to be driven in from there than from the 6 spot.

  • Mike,

    Was there any noticeable deviation from the start of the time period of study to the end? I guess I am asking if either runs or pitching is trending?

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    Well that was fun. Always a good day to beat up a few cheeseheads. LOL

  • Teams that give up less than 4 Runs a game and Score 4.33 per game make the playoffs almost always with a very few exceptions (Texas rangers being beaten out on the last game of the year). This gives you a plus 50 run differential over the course of 162 games. The cubs are upsidedown on these numbers but much closer on the pitching side. We have not yet seen Soler and Rizzo together, the strikeouts from Baez and AA have not made a measureable impact as of yet.

  • Earl Weaver's Orioles: Pitching, defense, and 3-run homers - I'll take that and it might just be what we are in for with this team.

  • By focusing excessively, one might say sometimes almost exclusively, on pitching, other front offices that have tried to rebuild may have created yet another inefficiency to be exploited by our thinking-outside-the-box front office, as we've cleaned up on offensive players overlooked, undervalued, or passed over by other teams.

  • Thanks for exploring this Mike. This is indeed rosy news for Cubs fans. Now all we have to do is get there!

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