Pitching and Defense Wins, As Long As You Can Also Hit

If you google for the phrase “pitching and defense wins championships”, the search engine returns 28.8 million results. Even if you put the statement in quotes, requiring that the exact phrase be used, there are still 99,000 pages where Google will show you that statement being written on the web.

Not all of those pages are advocating on behalf of that statement’s truth, but some of them certainly are. And, perhaps most recently, this sentiment was argued for on MLB Now, when White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson lectured Brian Kenny about the merits of statistical analysis in baseball. In that conversation, Harrelson said, among other things:

“This game is a game of defense, pitching being the first line of defense.”

“It’s not scoring runs, it’s keeping the other team from scoring more runs than you do. You do that with pitching and defense.

“The performance is the (win). That’s the performance, the (wins). And again, you do that with pitching and defense.”

“Brian, pitching and defense. That’s the name of this game.”

Hawk Harrleson is the broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox. The Chicago White Sox currently have the second best ERA in the American League at 3.40, trailing only the Rangers, who have a 3.39 ERA. The White Sox are doing this in one of the best ballparks for offense in baseball. It is fair to say that the White Sox — the team Harrelson watches every day — have been pretty great at pitching and defense.

The Chicago White Sox are 15-20 and currently sit in last place in the American League Central. Not only are the White Sox behind Detroit and Kansas City, who also have been stingy in allowing runs this year, they’re also behind the Indians (3.96 ERA) and the Twins (4.25 ERA), who aren’t so great at keeping opponents off the board, because both of those teams — along with every other team in the AL — are hitting much better than the White Sox are hitting.

Despite playing in that hitter friendly ballpark, the White Sox currently rate 15th out of 15 AL teams in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. At 3.4 runs per game, the White Sox rank dead last in the AL in run scoring. This is the team Hawk Harrelson has watched play all year long. Great pitching and defense, terrible hitting. It’s not equaling wins.

If you’re curious, here are a few correlations (in absolute value, so that everything is listed as a positive) between various numbers and a team’s current winning percentage.

Runs scored per game: .62
Runs allowed per game: .74
WAR per game: .84
Run differential per game: .93

Pitching and defense are great. Offense is great. Hawk said one true thing in that appearance on MLB Network, as the goal isn’t to score runs, but it’s to outscore your opponent. I wonder if, watching his team play every day, he would still argue that you can simply outscore your opponent with pitching and defense.

This wasn’t intended as any kind of in depth analysis, since the issue has already been studied many times and the conclusion is always the same; run scoring and run prevention are roughly of equal importance. There’s some evidence that teams who specialize in run prevention might do slightly better than teams who specialize in run scoring, but the furthest you can push the split is in the 52/48 range in favor of run prevention. By and large, a run is a run is a run.

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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

64 Responses to “Pitching and Defense Wins, As Long As You Can Also Hit”

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  1. Steve says:

    Perhaps the White Sox should try to actually get on base every once in a while? It doesn’t help that Adam Dunn is living in 2011 and Paul Konerko seems to finally be used up.

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  2. Mark says:

    If only the White Sox could “PUT IT ON THE BOARD… YES!” they might win a few more ballgames.

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  3. Dustin says:

    The run differential correlating at .93 is fun. I would have guessed it is higher.

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    • Urban Shocker says:

      It’s why the O’s were widely expected to regress last year, right? Lots of blowouts, and then many 1-run wins.

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  4. Matt Hoeppner says:

    While the White Sox pitching has been good, their defense has not been. They have committed the most errors in the AL and have the worst fielding percentage. As a result they have allowed 14 unearned runs this season and lost several 1 run or extra inning games as a result. Their hitting is atrocious but so is their defense.

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    • byron says:

      Their UZR and UZR/150 are 8th in the AL, DRS is 10th. That’s not good, and it’s of course SSS, but for the love of god don’t use fielding percentage and errors.

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      • rdj3video says:

        But regardless of the stats, our eyes still tell us that the White Sox are terrible defensively.

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      • Schuxu says:

        While looking at a 15-20 record and trying to find out how it was accomplished, there is no fault in looking at errors, unearned runs and how often they played a big role in one of these 20 losses.

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        • KDL says:

          OP wasn’t using errors to explain losses. OP was using errors to comment on quality of defense. Those are different, if related, ideas.

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      • DD says:

        The best we can draw from this is that with so many errors, their ERA is probably understated, so their pitching hasn’t neccessarily been top of the line.

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  5. Hunter says:

    Talk about your low hanging fruit…

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    • MikeS says:

      Yeah. If you want to point out that Hawk Harrelson doesn’t know about winning baseball, can’t you just show his one year stint as GM and be done with it?

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      • arg arg says:

        It frustrates me how incompetent people can occupy high positions. Well, high enough to be the voice of a major league team on tv, I mean. He could just talk about things he knows about like the mechanics of hitting, what goes on in a hitters mind, stuff that major league players know most about.

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        • Richie says:

          There’s ‘high’, and then there’s ‘important’. Being the TV voice of a baseball team is as important as being a character on ‘The View’. I’d hate to take a smart guy away from medical research or financial analysis and waste that talent in the entertainment field.

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        • arg arg says:

          @Richie. It doesn’t take a PhD/MD working on cancer research to not be an idiot on tv. Just some ex-player that is not a total dummie would suffice. A lot of above average peeps out there without touching the people that actually need brain cells to add value to the world.

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  6. Jeff K says:

    It’s humorous that Harrelson is respected and seen as “someone who knows what they’re talking about” by some. He certainly seems certain about his conclusions. That said, being certain about something you actually know little about is the most dangerous and worst form of ignorance.

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    • thirteenthirteen says:

      Who are the people who think Hawk knows what he’s talking about? Seriously, these people exist?

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    • Richie says:

      ‘Certainty’ is more entertaining than uncertainty. If Hawk started qualifying per se, never mind at a level consistent with where his IQ might be, they’d fire him and replace him with someone who makes a point of sounding ‘certain’.

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      • Jay29 says:

        “‘Certainty’ is more entertaining than uncertainty.”

        I think this is the letterhead on all Fox News internal memos.

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  7. El Vigilante says:

    Why team ERA and not RA9?

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  8. Ken Harrelson says:

    “You can put it on the board! Yes! Yes!”
    “He gone!”
    “Grab some bench!”
    “Sacks packed with Sox”
    “Stay fair!”

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  9. MikeS says:

    OK, the White Sox are awful, no fun to watch, and have little future. I say this as a life long fan and I wish that none of it were true. But isn’t it a tad odd that the day after Chris Sale throws a one hitter, this is the third article this afternoon to tell us just how bad they are?

    Don’t get me wrong. I thought Sale was going to throw a perfect game and somehow they would still find a way to lose. But I thought that if the White Sox got mentioned on Fangraphs today of all days, their one bright spot might be the subject.

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  10. MyrEn says:

    The correlation statistics posted above basically show that run prevention is a little better than run scoring at equaling wins. Whether it’s 52/48 or a little better than that is moot. I’d like to know why the correlation is bigger.

    Is it because run prevention teams win tighter games?

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    • Richie says:

      My guess is run prevention shortens games, which then correlates oh-so-slighty with fewer injuries. Especially especially especially for your pitchers. Enough so to push you to 51/49 or so.

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      • Anon21 says:

        Maybe, although that’s a pretty indirect connection. Could it be that teams with good offenses tend to “cluster” their good events (which for them, are games in which they score a ton of runs) more than teams with good pitching/defense? So the good-hitting teams win blowouts and sometimes get shut down; overall run-scoring is high, but it correlates a little less well to winning. Meanwhile, the pitching and defense teams do a better job of “spreading” their specialty out across games.

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        • Ron says:

          I would love to see more research on this. If it is out there could someone send some recomendations. It seems that good hitting teams are more streaky and as you say cluster the good hitting. Is this true or does it just seem that way?

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    • chel says:

      I believe it’s because fewer runs means more innings pitched by your starters which means you can leverage better your bullpen in other games. If you score 10 runs and allow 8 runs per game, your lesser bullpen pitchers are pitching too much and your bullpen aces are being taxed by too much work

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    • Joal says:

      I’m quite sure it’s because it’s impossible to lose when you allow zero runs (and close to impossible if you only allow 1-2 runs), but much more possible to lose when you score, say, 6 or 7 or even 10+ runs.

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      • EvilRoySlade says:

        Quite correct – no amount of runs scored can ever guarantee a victory. Pretty simple.

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      • Doug Lampert says:

        Agreed. And this is why Pythag methods were invented.

        Run prevention makes the denominator smaller, making the otherwise equivalent change marginally more significant. Using the symple Pythag formula if you take a team with a projection of .500 (say 700 runs scored and 700 runs allowed), and double runs scored (adding 700) it becomes an .800 team. Make the same size change down in runs allowed and it becomes a 1.000 team as the opponents are no longer scoring at all.

        For smaller changes the effect is less obvious, but still there.

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  11. Dennis says:

    Well, Earl Weaver was a revolutionary statistics-based manager, and he believed in pitching and defense…

    (and 3-run homers)

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  12. DrBGiantsfan says:

    Here are the top 10 MLB teams in Team xFIP: 1. Tigers 3.14. 2. Cardinals 3.39. 3. Rangers 3.46. 4. Red Sox 3.52. 5. Rays 3.64. 6. Reds 3.68 7. Royals 3.69. 8. Yankees 3.70. 9. Giants 3.71. 10. Dodgers 3.74.

    White Sox are #18 at 3.96.

    Here are the top 10 MLB teams in Fld: 1. Giants +21.0. 2. Royals +17.7. 3. Orioles +16.1. 4. D’Backs +14.0. 5. Braves 10.6. 6. Indians +9.8. 7. Reds +8.6. 8. Red Sox +7.4. 9. Yankees +6.7. 10. Rays +6.6.

    White Sox are #15 at -0.5.

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    • Larry Yocum says:

      So, what you are saying is that pitching and defense still means more wins, but that the White Sox really have neither.

      Using ERA to show that a team has a good pitching staff is pretty simplistic stuff for a fangraphs article, especially when the team has shown that they don’t have a solid defense according to any metric and they have allowed a great deal of unearned runs as well as extra runs due to a poor UZR.

      Your list of teams with positive Fld and xFIP would seem to correlate very well with how the wins are being distributed.

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  13. MLB Rainmaker says:

    I’m now convinced Cameron just writes stuff to collect comments. Does the writer with the most comments every month get a set of steak knives? Dude must really like steak…

    Of the Top 10 teams by ERA, CHW is the only team with a losing record and vice versa, TB is the only team with a winning record in the bottom 10 in ERA. And as mentioned, CHW is bottom 3 in the league in Errors and tied for last in Fielding%, while TB is Top 10 in both.

    For the last 20 WS champions, only 4 were outside of the Top 5 in their league in ERA, vs. 9 outside of the Top 5 in Runs. Three times a team was Top 5 pitching and Bottom 5 in hitting, but the opposite did not occur once. To me that would suggest a greater importance on preventing runs.

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    • marlins12 says:

      Cameron’s articles recently haven’t been the best.

      Last one I read was about Asian pitchers being underrated, and then he listed about 10 guys. One of which was Hisanori Takahashi who sucks. About three or four others were middle relievers, and Darvish topped the list/Darvish isn’t underrated at all.

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      • Paul Wilson says:

        Strongly disagree. The Underrated Pitchers article, the Kazmir article and the Rizzo article were insightful and well articulated. You find this kind of analysis in a front office, not on Bleacher Report. Great stuff as usual, Dave.

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      • Richie says:

        If you think Darvish belongs up there with Verlander and Kershaw and Felix, yeah then he is underrated. I don’t think he’s broadly seen as as good as any other pitcher in the game.

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    • Richie says:

      Rain, you couldn’t do that more superficially if you tried. Using ERA rather than runs allowed, not accounting for ballparks, cutting it off at 20 years, looking at only WS winners rather than pennant winners or playoff teams. Even if you were sincere rather than cherry-picking stuff, it’s still pretty useless.

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    • Baltar says:

      It is clear that part of Dave Cameron’s job at FanGraphs is to write some articles that really have little value except to stir up controversy.
      And guess what? It works. These articles get huge numbers of comments from us, then we come back later or the next day to see the replies and the number of hits goes up to raise advertisers interest.
      I’m good with this as long as they keep all the really good articles coming.

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  14. Richie says:

    Dave’s obligated to write every day. Which often won’t leave you time for much research, which sometimes will leave you just in front of your deadline going “cripes, what in the world do I write about today?!?” A site like this picking on, well, an idiot like Hawk, that strikes me as filler. Of which we’re going to get some.

    (and actually, didn’t this article go up clearly later than Dave usually get his articles up?)

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    • DrBGiantsfan says:

      This site is over-saturated with content as it is. Maybe they need to re-think the Write A Post Everyday rule for every contributor?

      Maybe they distribute income from the site by percentage of posts written?

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  15. PackBob says:

    Harrelson is one of those that overstates to make his point, just like he over-calls games. You have to discount whatever he says by 50% to get to what might be meaningful.

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  16. Phrozen says:

    Obviously, the White Sox have enough pitching and defense, they’re just lacking TWTW.

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  17. OldDogScount says:

    “a run is a run is a run”

    Really, on what planet?

    Cmon, Dave, are you running out of preposterous ways to continue defending your devotion to models that just are providing the answer you’d prefer.

    Confirmation bias, perhaps?

    As one of the commenters above astutely pointed out, the Chi Sox terrible fielding & hitting nullify decent pitching that no amount of offense can offset.

    Why don’t you just come out & admit it, the models are out of phase with the recent developments in MLB.

    Go watch a game for a change, who knows Joe Morgan may even lend you his ear ;->

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  18. Schuxu says:

    What happens more often / more easily:
    A high scoring, bad run preventing team getting a good pitching/defensive performance that sets there win expectation above lets say 90% given there expected offensive run output.
    Or a low scoring good run preventing team having an offensive outburst that gives them an expected win at >= 90%?

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  19. Kyle says:

    How many times do you see a brilliant performance from an ace only to have him lose 2-1 or have a closer come in and walk a few guys and give up a hit to lose it?

    I agree… pitching and defense are key but if you don’t have at least two real hitters, it doesn’t work. No defense seems to cost teams in the playoffs(while subpar pitching might be overcome with teams who score a ton of runs.)

    Remember: The Braves used to always have amazing pitching and defense; but didn’t hit like the old Indians or Marlins. The Indians had everything except pitching. This isn’t always the case with the Giants winning it all with no hitting and major holes in the defense. Remember those Oakland teams with better pitching staffs, great hitting, and defense(well, it wasn’t horrible.) The Yankees dominated them.

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    • thirteenthirteen says:

      The 2010 Giants didn’t have a very good offense, but they also didn’t have “no hitting”. The 2012 Giants were one of the NL’s top offensive teams. The 2011 Giants, however, really did have an atrocious offense and bizarrely, that’s the only year of the last three they didn’t make the playoffs.

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    • Wil says:

      I find your comment about the Braves kinda funny in the fact that the Indians were the team the Braves beat to capture their WS in 95.

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  20. Cheapskate says:

    The White Sox may have an AL second-best 3.40 ERA, but they are also operating at a -187 TWtW+. Their current standing should come as no surprise to Hank.

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  21. The Humber Games says:

    HH is one of the most irritating ‘homer’ announcers in all of MLB, so paint me surprised that he’s trying to formulate arguments that coincidentally mean his team is less bad than it is

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  22. olethros says:

    Isn’t the “pitching and defense” formulation most often used to explain playoff success rather than regular season? What’s the correlation of all those metrics with playoff series wins?

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  23. Harold Reynolds says:

    If the White Sox would attack the ball and quit worrying about taking pitches maybe they would hit the ball.

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  24. Hank says:

    When looking at pitching and defense (and run prevention), of course you only look at EARNED runs, because as we all know unearned runs don’t count.

    Dave tested the “pitching and defense” narrative without doing a single thing to look at defense. I’m not saying the conclusion would necessarily change, but man this was shoddy analysis. At least use RA/9

    ERA Dave… really? That is how you study pitching AND defense? The ERA of the White Sox pitchers tells you “it’s fair to say” they have great defense? Yikes. This just in: ERA tells us that Detroit has a really good defense, as does St Louis.

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  25. Baltar says:

    Your point is, of course, correct, Dave, and needed saying.
    However, I hate it when people type in 6 words in Google and point out the number of “hits.”
    Odds are that no more than a handful of those “hits” have anything to do with the subject, even when in quotes.

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  26. What is lost in the rush to condemn old-time folk baseball announcers is that there are some truths that sabers still are slow to recognize themselves.

    For example, here is the old rubric of pitching and fielding wins championships, and the comeback is that you need offense too. That’s obviously true, not really sure what the purpose of the article is, other than to fill space.

    However, this misses the spot on the greater truth, as sabermetrics research has found, that it is pitching and fielding that wins championships. Both BP and THT in the last ten years did research on what it takes for a team to win championships – not just get into the playoffs, but go deep and all the way. And both, despite different methodologies, found that offense don’t matter and that it is truly indeed pitching and fielding defense that wins championships.

    Perhaps if people spent more time reading for scholarship than replying snarkily in a psuedo-Jamesian way (I wish people would stop trying to copy him, not that he wasn’t great, but he was a one of a kind, please find your own way) then these type of repeated bashing of old baseball thoughts would stop.

    Yes, read it and weep, offense don’t really matter in the playoffs. Yes, as the author here notes obviously, you still need some sort of offense, but the studies found that it didn’t matter if you were a high scoring team, low scoring team, high HR team, low HR team, or whatever extreme you want to look at, offense in the end didn’t matter.

    It is pitching and defense that matters. BP’s study used regression analysis to find the statistically significant metrics to study of playoff teams and found three key stats: K/9 for the pitching staff, a great closer (by WRXL), and a good defense (by their defensive metric at that time). Teams in their database that were tops in the three categories made the World Series and mostly won (and two of the three teams that didn’t win, lost to a another top 10 team). THT used another methodology but came to the same general conclusions: offense don’t matter, pitching and defense does, in winning championships.

    And this isn’t the first time I’ve noted this in comments here, perhaps this time someone at Fangraphs will notice and do a proper study on their part and see what conclusion they come up with. You know, do actual research and analysis instead of snarky comebacks that falls flat when you look at the current state of art in sabermetrics.

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    • And by championships, if it was not clear in my comment, I mean World Championships, World Series victors, not just regular season division winners or even League Championships. As that is the only championship I have worried about and hoped for over the years.

      Thus, looking at regular season stats don’t really do anything for me.

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