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Pitching Wins Championships

Pitching Wins Championships

by Cary Greene

February 19, 2022


Continuing on with my comparison of American League East Teams, let’s take a look at the single most important area of any team – the starting rotations!

But first…

They say pitching wins championships and to prove it, I examined World Series championship teams in baseball history, since 1903 and I pulled both their ERA+ and their OPS+. The results were resoundingly true. Pitching does win championships.

***If you’re not into advanced stats, ERA+ takes a team’s (or a pitcher’s) ERA and normalizes it across the entire league, accounting for external factors like ballparks and opponents, then it adjusts, so a score of 100 is league average. A score of 110 would be 10 percent better than league average. Meanwhile, OPS+ takes a team’s (or a batter’s) On-Base-Percentage and Slugging Percentage and normalizes the numbers across the entire league, also factoring in ballparks and then adjusting so that a score of 100 would be league average, while a score of 110 would 10 percent above average. Basically it was an easy way to see which mattered more, hitting – or pitching!

Since 1903, there have only been seven teams in 117 years of World Series play who have won a World Series championship when their regular season ERA+ was less than 100. A team with below-average pitching has only won the World Series 6% of the time. Let’s examine these teams and peel back the onion. Did they win in spite of their pitching or, did their pitching at least rise to the occasion and perform in an above average fashion in the postseason?

Interestingly, the first case of this happening was with the 1913 A’s, who used exactly three pitchers, Charles Bender, Bullet Joe Bush and Eddie Plank in their World Series four games to one win over the New York Giants that year. This remarkable trio pitched all 46 innings of the A’s five games and had a combined 3.19 ERA. Imagine using only three pitchers to dominate a World Series? This was not a team with a deep regular season pitching staff, but they had excellent top of the rotation pieces nonetheless and they quite literally rode them to a World Series win. I think we can throw this example out on the grounds that very good pitching occurred for the A’s in the postseason in 1913.

Looking at the 1987 Twins, their staff had a 4.63 ERA during the regular season but they came together a bit in the postseason that year, improving to a 3.75 ERA, which was far above league average ERA (4.28) in 1987. Still, the ‘87 Twins clearly won with offense, but their postseason pitching was better than average that season. The Twins had a 97 OPS (which was league average) in 1987, while their ERA+ that season was 97, below league average which was 99. This example can be thrown out as well, as the Twins ‘87 postseason pitching was solidly above average.

Another such team with below average regular season pitching to win a World Series was the 2006 Cardinals. The Cards pitching staff had a 4.64 regular season ERA but it dropped to 2.05 in the postseason, so it’s fair to say that while their regular season pitching wasn’t that good, they actually won a championship because of hot pitching. We can throw this example out as well.

We can also note that the 2011 Cardinals repeated the “feat”, going from a regular season 4.54 ERA to a postseason ERA of 2.05 and so we’ll throw this example out also. We’re still really searching for a single team in World Series history that didn’t win with pitching that came together at the right time of year.

In 2012, the Giants had a regular season ERA of 3.68 but their post season mark of 1.46 was lights-out! Their ERA+ during the season was 96, a full 5 points from the 2012 league average of 101. We’ll have to throw this example out on the grounds of red hot postseason pitching.

Again, in 2014, the Giants rode Madison Bumgarner’s sparkling 0.43 postseason ERA to another title, though the staff overall posted a 3.98 ERA in the postseason, which much worse than league average (3.74) in 2014. The 2014 Giants can’t be thrown out. They won despite below average pitching, no matter how we slice it. Granted, they had a hot ace in the hole, but the rest of the staff was far below average. This Giants team truly won despite below average pitching, which makes this team an absolute anomaly.

Another team that defied the trend was the 2017 Astros, who had a 99 ERA+ which was below league average of 101. In the postseason that year, as Yankee fans well remember, the Astros got good pitching when it mattered. The league average ERA that year was 4.35 and the Astros put up a 4.64 overall postseason ERA, making Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and company part of an overall below average pitching staff. The 2017 Astros clearly won with the best OPS+ (123) of any World Series Champion in the last 10 years though and of course the cheating they did probably made a huge difference overall.

What then, does it take to win a World Series? Well, let’s consider the four below facts.

● 26 of 117 World Series winners had better hitting than pitching (22.2%), so hitting isn’t all that important compared to pitching, but it still matters.

● The average World Series winner had an OPS+ of 103.91, so a team with mark below this threshold is highly unlikely to hit enough to win it all.

● The average World Series winner had an ERA+ of 113.66 and this is a highly important stat. Teams below this mark will find it absolutely difficult to win it all.

● Thus, on average, the World Series winner has an ERA+ of 9.75 more than its OPS+ and this stat is most related to roster building 101. It’s a stat every contending team’s GM should absolutely use to shape their rosters.

How do the Yankees measure up to these benchmarks, say, over the past five seasons? Well, in 2017, the Yankee approach nearly got them to the World Series, but far superior hitting (and cheating) combined with good pitching when it mattered most proved too much for the 2017 Yankees to overcome. The 2017 Yankees were built on good pitching. If anything, they were a potent bat or two away from changing their narrative, but the primarily right-handed offense just couldn’t quite break through against all the right-handed pitching they faced in the postseason. Cashman was very, very close in 2017.

In 2018, Yankee pitching declined substantially and it was very clear to Yankee fans that this team wasn’t built to compete for a title. In 2019, the pitching was even worse and it was more of the same as the Yankees failed again. The decline of the Yankees pitching continued in 2020 and the team was badly outclassed. In fact the Dodgers roster was unstoppable, even when compared to the Rays that season.

Which brings us to last season, 2021, where the Yankees pitching was quite a bit stronger. The Yankees went very quietly in the one game playoff and if we look at the team’s 100 OPS+, we can see that the offense was a big problem for this team, which wasn’t built to win it all. If World Series winners need a minimum OPS+ of 103.91, the Yankee offense wasn’t built to carry the team to a championship.

Yankee pitching was deep last year, but that doesn’t help in a one game playoff. Still, Cashman increased the Yankee pitching by +16 ERA+ from 2020 to 2021. Assuming the Yankees had a better offense of say OPS+ 104 or better, the roster still doesn’t have quite enough pitching to do the job in theory – as they’d need an ERA+ of 9.75 or more better than their OPS+ and the differential would only be +9.

Do the Yankees have enough pitching to win a World Series? There aren’t many teams in baseball that had better pitching last season, but the White Sox, Brewers, Giants and Dodgers are all varying degrees of being substantially better at pitching.

The below chart frames the American League East versus the World Series winners in each of the last five seasons. You can see that the Yankees have fallen off substantially from where they were in 2017.

Last year, the Dodgers led MLB with a 136 ERA+ and still, they didn’t win the World Series. Their offense struggled in the postseason and right in line with my research, their OPS+ was only 103 (a tad below the World Series champions standard of 103.91. The Dodgers lost Max Scherzer to the Mets and they also lost significant contributors so they are presently vastly weakened. Based on last year, the Red Sox, Nationals, Giants, White Sox, Rays, Astros and Blue Jays all have offenses that were good enough. League average OPS+ was 97 last year. The Braves were only a 96, yet they won because of their pitching and timely hitting. League average ERA last year was 4.26 and the Braves postseason mark was 3.06. Again, hot pitching and just enough offense to win got it done.

Starting rotations can make a huge difference in a team’s success, so how do the American League East Division rivals compare heading into the season? I’ll be exploring the starting rotations of each team in my next article. Then, I’ll look at the bullpens and finish up with a detailed review of the Yankee farm system, as it compares in true context to the teams the Yankees compete against.


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