Does Pitching Matter?

February 18, 2016
 
At first glance, the 2005 World Series doesn’t seem like a particularly significant marker in the ebb and flow of baseball’s history. The contest, matching the old and ghost-haunted Chicago White Sox against expansion-era Houston Astros, was a dull and one-sided affair in which the South Siders swept the Space Racer in four games.  
 
It’s not surprising that both teams were in the Fall Classic: they each had terrific pitching. The Astros boasted a trio of Southern-born starting pitchers (Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Roy Oswalt), supported by the organization’s usual selection of clubbers with ‘B’-surnames. Meanwhile, the White Sox rotation, less vaunted, was one of the steadiest in modern history: Mark Buehrle (33 starts), Freddy Garcia (33), Jon Garland (32), and Jose Contreras (32) never missed their turns in the rotation, while Orlando Hernandez (22 starts) and a young Brandon McCarthy (10 starts) split the starts in the last spot. As far as offense goes, Paul Konerko was the team’s big thumper, while Jermaine Dye and Aaron Rowand turned in solid years.
 
The two teams meeting in the Fall Classic in 2005 happened to have the best pitching in baseball: the Astros team ranked 2nd in Team WAR by pitchers that year. The White Sox ranked 1st.
 
 
*             *             *
 
That should happen sometimes, right? The teams with the best pitching should make it to the World Series a not-too-rare portion of the time. Saying that there’s a correlation between having good pitching and having a good team isn’t some out-there kind of theory. It makes sense.
 
So how often does something like this happen? How often do teams with good pitchingend up in the World Series.
 
*             *             *
 
Let’s go back in time a little bit, before going forward.
 
-          In 2005 we saw the #1-ranked White Sox beat the #2-ranked Astros. If you want to argue that good pitching correlates to team success, this is as good an example as you could hope for.
 
-          The 2004 World Series saw the Red Sox beat the Cardinals. The Red Sox ranked 3rd in pitching WAR, while the Cardinals ranked 10th. The #1 pitching team, incidentally, was the Twins. They made the playoffs, too, but got bounced in the ALDS.
 
-          The 2003 World Series featured the #1 pitching team, the New York Yankees. Unfortunately they lost to the upstart Marlins (8th)  
 
-          The 2002 World Series was a bust as far as elite pitching goes: the Angels (12th) beat the Giants (7th). The #1 team were the Yankees, who were bounced out in the ALDS.
 
-          On the other hand, the 2001 World Series saw the #1 and #2 pitching teams face off in the World Series, with the #2 Diamondbacks upsetting the #1 Yankees. That was a good series, with a lot of Hall-worthy pitchers on both sides. 
 
-          The 2000 Subway Series featured the #5 Mets and the #6 Yankees. The #1 team in Pitching WAR were the Braves, who lost in the NLDS.
 
-          The Braves did reach the World Series in 1999, as the #1-ranked pitching team. Unfortuantely they lost to the Yankees, who ranked 5th. Pretty good matchup, #1 and #5.
 
-          The Braves were #1 in 1998, but they lost to the Padres in the NLCS. The Padres weren’t exactly slouches when it came to pitching: they were the #2 ranked team. The team that won the World Series in 1998 were the Yankees….#3 in pitching WAR. This is another matchup of teams with terrific staffs.
 
-          1997 was an offense year: the Marlins (9th) beating the Indians (20th). The #1 Braves reached the NLCS, but lost to Miami.
 
-          Finally, 1996 saw another #1 and #2 matchup in the World Series, with the Braves (#1) losing to the Yankees (#2).
 
 
*             *             *
 
That’s a decade of World Series, but it’s probably too much information for the brain to process. Let’s look at those results in chart form:
 
Year
WS Winner
Rank
WS Loser
Rank
2005
White Sox
1st
Astros
2nd
2004
Red Sox
3rd
Cardinals
10th
2003
Marlins
8th
Yankees
1st
2002
Angels
12th
Giants
7th
2001
D'Backs
2nd
Yankees
1st
2000
Yankees
6th
Mets
5th
1999
Yankees
5th
Braves
1st
1998
Yankees
3rd
Padres
2nd
1997
Marlins
9th
Indians
20th
1996
Yankees
2nd
Braves
1st
 
The #1-ranked pitching teams made the World Series five times over those ten years, while the #2-ranked teams reached the Fall Classic four times.
 
And it’s not like the other teams in the World Series were slouches when it came to pitching: the above list has two 3rd place teams winning championships, and one 5th-place team winning a title. The only teams not in the top-ten in Pitching WAR are the 1997 Indians (a monster lineup) and the 2002 Angels (12th in Pitching WAR).
 
The 2005 Astros and White Sox weren’t flukes: that decade saw a lot of elite pitching teams play in the World Series. More than half of the World Series teams ranked in the top-three in Pitching WAR:
 
WS Appearances
1996-2005
#1 Team
5
#2 Team
4
#3 Team
2
Total
11 (55%)
 
No #4 team reached the playoffs over that decade, but two #5 teams reached. And a #6, #7, #8, #9, and #10-ranked team all reached at least one World Series.
 
Five #1 ranked teams didn’t reach the World Series. How many of them at least made the playoffs?
 
All of them. Every team that ranked #1 in cumulative WAR by pitchers reached the playoffs between 1996 and 2005.
 
Most astonishingly, the World Series featured the #1 and #2 pitching teams playing against one another three times over this decade. That’s a bit of a fluke, because the #1 and #2 teams could be in the same league: It’s possible, for instance, that two or three National League teams could top all of the American League teams in Pitching WAR.
 
The important take-away is that there is a very strong correlation between having good pitching and winning. Most of the teams that appeared in the World Series between 1996 and 2005 had excellent pitchers, and all of the teams with the best pitching at least reached the postseason.
 
 
*             *             *
 
Going back further.
 
Wait…why are we going back further?
 
We’re going back further to see if the success of top-pitching teams is related to the Wild Card. The Wild Cards started in 1995, so the decade we just looked at was entirely in the Wild Card era.
 
I wanted to go before the Wild Card, to see how top-ranked pitching teams did in the era of four playoff teams.
 
I won’t run down the list this time. Just the table:
 
Year
WS Winner
Rank
WS Loser
Rank
1995
Braves
1st
Indians
2nd
1993
Blue Jays
15th
Phillies
8th
1992
Blue Jays
20th
Braves
1st
1991
Twins
10th
Braves
3rd
1990
Reds
4th
A's
1st
1989
A's
2nd
Giants
5th
1988
Dodgers
2nd
A's
8th
1987
Twins
23rd
Cardinals
8th
1986
Mets
1st
Red Sox
12th
1985
Royals
6th
Cardinals
3rd
 
The #1-ranked team in baseball won the World Series in 1995 and 1986. The #1-ranked team lost the World Series in 1992 and 1990.
 
That means that 6 #1 teams didn’t reach the World Series. Did they at least make the playoffs?
 
Four of those six #1-ranked teams reached the playoffs: the 1993 Braves, the 1988 Mets, the 1987 Giants, and the 1985 Dodgers all won their divisions, but lost in the Championship Series.  
 
That leaves two #1 teams. The 1991 Dodgers didn’t reach the playoffs, but they came damned close, finishing just one game behind the Giants. They won more games than any team in NL East. They were a lucky break away from making the playoffs.
 
The 1989 Dodgers are the only #1-ranked team that didn’t a) reach the playoffs, or b) come extremely close to reaching the playoffs. They finished in third, a lot of games out. The 1989 Dodgers just weren’t that good a team.
 
Wait a second…not that good? That’s probably a stretch. The 1989 Dodgers were the defending champions.
 
So we’ve looked at 20 #1 teams so far. Nine of those twenty played in the World Series. Another nine made it to the playoffs. One missed the playoffs by a single game. The only #1-ranked pitching team that wasn’t really good was a team coming off a championship season. It sure pays to be #1.
 
How about the other high-ranking teams?
 
During this decade, #2-ranked teams won two World Series (1988 and 1989) and lost one (1995). #3-ranked teams lost both World Series they played in. The #4-ranked Reds won in 1990. Pretty good bullpen on that team.
 
We should note, too, that three low-ranked pitching teams made the World Series over this decade, each winning a Championship. The 1992 and 1993 Blue Jays, an incredible offensive team, brought the championship north of the border and defended it. The 1987 Twins, a weak championship team, won a surprise victory over the Runnin’ Cardinals.
 
Still, the teams with the best pitchers held their own during this decade. We can add to our little table:
 
WS Appearances
1985-1995
1996-2005
#1-Ranked Team
4
5
#2-Ranked Team
3
4
#3-Ranked Team
2
2
Total
9 (45%)
11 (55%)
 
This is pretty consistent: the top-three teams in Pitching WAR account for exactly half of the World Series teams over these two decades. The addition of the Wild Card didn’t weaken the chances for elite pitching teams: they actually did a bit betterin the new decade.
 
None of this is surprising, right? It’s not particularly noteworthy that teams with the best pitching tend to be successful teams.
 
 
*             *             *
 
We’ve gone backward in time two decades….now it’s time to go forward.
 
Remember that 2005 World Series between the Astros and White Sox? Remember that that was one of those years where the #1 and #2 teams faced off against each other in the World Series?
 
Well…that hasn’t happened since.
 
I don’t mean that exact scenario hasn’t happened. What mean is that that nothing close to that has happened. In the ten World Series matchups we’ve seen since the 2005 World Series, no #1-ranked pitching team has won the World Series. None of them…not a single one. Just one #1-ranked team has even reached the World Series. They played a team that ranked 19th in pitchers WAR. 
 
How about #2 teams?
 
Nope. No #2-ranked teams have won the World Series. Actually, none of them have even reached the World Series.
 
And if you think this is great news for the #3-ranked pitching teams, it’s not. Just one #3 team has reached the World Series. Did they win? Of course not.  
 
Here’s that table of the top-three teams by World Series appearances, again:
 
WS Appearances
1985-1995
1996-2005
2006-2015
#1-Ranked Team
4
5
1
#2-Ranked Team
3
4
0
#3-Ranked Team
2
2
1
Total
11 (55%)
13 (65%)
2 (10%)

After two decades where elite pitching teams have made up exactly 50% of the World Series teams, we’ve just witnessed a decade when top-three pitching teams have accounted for a paltry two of the twenty most recent teams in the Fall Classic.
 
I’ve shown you the year-by-year breakdown of World Series representative for the two decades previous to ours, so I’ll show you the most recent decade of World Series representatives:
 
Year
WS Winner
Rank
WS Loser
Rank
2015
Royals
15th
Mets
7th
2014
Giants
26th
Royals
10th
2013
Red Sox
13th
Cardinals
4th
2012
Giants
19th
Tigers
1st
2011
Cardinals
17th
Rangers
8th
2010
Giants
4th
Rangers
3rd
2009
Yankees
7th
Phillies
20th
2008
Phillies
12th
Rays
10th
2007
Red Sox
6th
Rockies
11th
2006
Cardinals
27th
Tigers
7th
 
After two decades where elite pitching teams have comprised more than of the World Series representatives, the tide has turned – quite aggressively - away from teams with strong pitching.
 
There is another surprising trend, which is just as interesting. Let’s look at the last five World Series contests. I assume most of you will remember these contests:
 
Year
WS Winner
Rank
WS Loser
Rank
Gap
2015
Royals
15th
Mets
7th
8
2014
Giants
26th
Royals
10th
16
2013
Red Sox
13th
Cardinals
4th
9
2012
Giants
19th
Tigers
1st
18
2011
Cardinals
17th
Rangers
8th
9
 
The added column is the difference in pitching rank between the World Series winners and World Series losers. In each of the last five World Series’, we’ve had bigdifferences between the quality of each team’s pitchers….differences in rank of eight or more.
 
And every year, the team with the lowest ranked pitchers has won the World Series.
 
The first part isn’t rare: we’ve seen seasons where teams with good pitching staffs have played teams with lesser pitching staffs. In 1997, the 7th-ranked Marlins played the 20th-ranked Indians. The 1992 Braves (1st, obviously) played the Blue Jays (20th). The 1987 Cardinals (7th) played the Twins (23rd). The 1986 Mets (1st) played the Red Sox (12th). It’s not that uncommon to have a team highly ranked in Pitching WAR meet a lower-ranked team in the World Series.
 
Most of the weak-pitching teams who made it to the World Series between 1985 and 2005 were great hitting teams. The 1986 Red Sox had a terrific lineup. The 1992 and 1993 Blue Jays were stacked with hitters. So were the 1997 Indians. Aside from the (decidedly fluky) 1987 Twins, the team who reached the World Series with bad pitching always had really good offenses to back them up.
 
This has continues to hold true: while last year’s Royals weren’t a monster offensive team, the 2014 and 2012 Giants had terrific offenses (masked, somewhat, by park effects). The 2013 Red Sox led the AL in runs scored. The 2012 Cardinals, a monster offense, led the NL in runs scored. They outscored the Rockies.
 
The teams making the World Series with bad pitching are doing so by virtue of some great hitting. That’s not uncommon, of course…that makes sense. If you’re a playoff team with sub-par pitching, you’re going to have a good offense. That trend has held over the last thirty years.
 
What’s changed is that matchups between good-pitching and good-hitting teams used to be toss-ups. If, say, a #3-ranked pitching team met a #16-ranked team, it was mostly a coin-flip who’d win.
 
Lately, however, the teams with lower-quality staffs seem to be winning all of the World Series. When it comes to mismatches in quality of pitching in the World Series, the teams with drastically worse pitching staffs are riding an six-Series winning streak, including the last five World Series we’ve seen.
 
That’s strange, right? 
 
*             *             *
 
We can say there are two ‘trends’ here. I won’t say anything has been proven them conclusively, only that we’re noticing something. Something seems to be there.
 
The first trend is that elite pitching teams don’t seem to be reaching the World Series as easily as they used did. In the past, about half the World Series teams would show up in the top-three in pitching WAR. That number has dropped: the top pitching teams have been underrepresented in the last decade of World Series.
 
The second is that having good pitching doesn’t seem as much of an advantage in those series: head-to-head, the teams with really good pitching staffs are doing a lot of losing in playoff series.
 
So what gives?
 
I’m not sure, actually, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject. I have a few ideas
 
1.       It’s possible that there isn’t really a trend here.
 
I should note that we’re really talking about thirty data sets….thirty different World Series matchups. That’s a small sample size, and it’s not reasonable to draw too many conclusions because the ten most recent events don’t quite match with the twenty that preceded it.
 
That said, I think the World Series - a best-of-seven contest – tends to test the mettle of teams more than a one-off event like the Super Bowl. Over a long contest, the flaws and strengths of a team are revealed. We saw this last year: the Mets flaws on defense and over-dependence on Cespedes to drive their offense showed. So, too, did KC’s pesky ability to make contact against even the most strikeout-able pitchers. I think the better team usually wins the World Series.

But we could just be looking at a weird fluke. If the Nats end up beating the Indians in the World Series next year, any ‘trend’ we’re currently seeing probably goes right out the window, and we’re back to square one.
 
2.       WAR might be the problem.
 
All of this stuff is relying on WAR as a measure of a pitching staff’s effectiveness, and it’s possible that WAR has a bias problem. The Royals don’t rate as a good pitching team, but they’ve had a pretty good bullpen in recent years. It is possible that WAR is overrating the importance of starters, and underrating the importance of relief pitching. Maybe that’s the problem: relief pitching is gaining in importance, and the metric hasn’t cottoned to this.
 
That said, I’d be hard pressed to disagree with most of their conclusions. WAR pegged the Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz teams as the #1 team for a lot of their big years…that obviously passes the smell test. They liked the Mets and Dodgers in the late-1980’s, and credited the Tigers as the best pitching team in 2013. They recognized that the Yankees and D’Backs had great pitching teams, and they tabbed the White Sox and Astros. If the metric isn’t exactly perfect, it’s at least generating very good results….results that hold against most other measures of pitching quality.
 
3.       The floor is rising.
 
This is my favorite theory; this is my interpretation of what’s happened: the floor of what a bad pitcher is in major league baseball is rising. While we still have really excellent starting pitchers (the Kershaws and Prices and Scherzers of the world) in the game today, the big change over the last ten or fifteen years is how much better all pitchers are.
 
Here’s one way to look at it. Here are the top-ten starting pitchers in K%-BB% (that’s strikeout percentage minus walk percentage) in 1985 and 2015:
 
Rank
1985
K-BB%
2015
K-BB%
1
Dw. Gooden
18.7%
C. Kershaw
29.1%
2
D. Eckersley
14.8%
Chris Sale
27.2%
3
Sid Fernandez
14.6%
Max Scherzer
26.9%
4
B. Saberhagen
12.9%
Carlos Carrasco
23.7%
5
Mike Krukow
12.6%
Corey Kluber
22.6%
6
Bruce Hurst
12.2%
M. Bumgarner
22.4%
7
Nolan Ryan
11.6%
Jacob deGrom
22.2%
8
John Tudor
11.3%
Jake Arrieta
21.6%
9
Frank Tanana
11.3%
Chris Archer
21.4%
10
Rick Reuschel
11.1%
David Price
20.1%
 
In 1985, Dwight Gooden led the majors in K%-BB%, posting an 18.7% mark that lapped the rest of the NL. That’s a pretty good mark, in a remarkable season. Gooden’s 1985 campaign is rated as the best pitching season of the 1980’s, and as one of the greatest single-seasons of any pitcher, ever.
 
But it pales by today’s standards. Gooden’s strikeout-minus-walk percentage of 18.7% wouldn’t  qualify as elite in 2015: a staggering sixteen starting pitchers posted a better strikeout-to-walk rate last year. Dennis Eckersley finished 2ndin K%-BB% in 1985, with a 14.8% mark. That same tally would’ve tied him for 34th among qualified starters in 2015, with the not-quite-immortal J.A. Happ.

I think what’s happened is that the floor has been lifted: the steady increase in strikeouts and decline in walks across all of baseball all pitchers are more effective. What used to be ace-level performance is now Happ-level performance. Add to that the success of relief pitchers, and better usage patterns in how managers are using relief pitchers, and you can make the argument that good pitching just isn’t rare anymore. The gap between ‘average and ‘great’ still exists, but the ‘average’ has improved to a point where it’s now enough to win. You just don’t need to have the best pitching staff in baseball anymore: there are a lot more avenue to winning without great pitching now, and teams are increasingly pursuing in those avenues.
 
Or that’s what I think this means…that’s the trend I’m seeing. The old canard that pitching wins championships just isn’t true anymore. That’s not because good pitching no longer exists; it’s because the number of ‘bad’ pitchers has decreased in baseball. Because every pitcher can generate an impressive tally of strikeouts while limiting walks, the added value of having elite pitching is diminished. It’s still nice to have an ace or two, but if there used to be a correlation between elite pitching and making the World Series, that correlation no longer holds.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 
 

COMMENTS (22 Comments, most recent shown first)

Brock Hanke
steve - Wow. You've been following baseball since I was born. I don't know many of those any more. On the "bench strength turning into regulars" thing: I actually like the current Cardinal approach, although I wouldn't turn down Jason Heyward. Essentially, there are three pools of talent on the position player side: the catcher pool - you need two plus an emergency guy somewhere else, the infield (or glove) pool, 2B,3B, SS, where you need 4 guys, at least two of whom can play SS, and the outfield/1B (or bat) pool, where you need 5 guys, two of whom have to be able to play CF. You need the extra guy - a close-to-starter guy - in each pool to deal with workload and injuries. The Cards, this year, have SIX legitimate guys in the bat pool: Grichuk, Piscotty, Pham, Adams, Holliday, and Moss. No, none of them is a superstar (Holliday might still qualify as a star), but they're covered. They only need four of the six to come through. They signed a close-to-starter infielder, which means that Peralta might not end up wearing down, and they signed a close-to-starter catcher, in case Yadi needs more time off or gets hurt again. There have been several years, including last year, where the Cards won more games than the Cubs (or Cincy or Pittsburgh) because those other teams didn't have that kind of depth. Pitching, right now, is so complicated a matter that I'm not sure what to say, except that you need six decent or better starters, and the Cards have that, too. To make the point more immediate, right now, everyone has the Cubs as the class of the division. Well, last year, the Cards lost their ace starter, their #3 hitter, and their cleanup man for 2/3 or more of the season, but won 100 games anyway because they had those extra-man pool members. Well, what happens to the Cubs if they lose Arrietta, Bryant and Rizzo for 4-5 months each? Who do they have behind those guys? If I were a Cubs fan, I would be worried about exactly that question.
5:32 AM Mar 2nd
 
steve161
Brock: I follow the Cardinals as well (fan since 1948), but from a distance (I live in Munich), though I've attended games in St Louis each of the last 15 years except 2009. Last year they pretty clearly put most of their eggs in the pitching basket, and who knows how it would have worked out if not for one last injury?

This year will depend on some of last year's bench strength turning into productive regulars (Piscotty, Grichuk, even Pham), the pitching additions, and the health of old men. In general, I agree: they'll contend but probably won't win. And yet: position for position they don't look worse than the 2015 Royals.

I can't get over the feeling that the last couple of years have showed us that we know less than we think we know.
5:14 PM Feb 23rd
 
fharmon5
College student here who is relatively new to the analytical side of sports (just recently became an avid reader of the sort about a year ago), so I'll take a stab at a few theories that came to my mind just based on first perception:

1. I would imagine that there could be an inverse correlation between good pitching and hitting. Teams that spend money on pitching will likely not be able to afford to field a plus offensive team. This would be more evident with the increase in parity over the last 5 years or so, where we seldom see teams win 100+ games, as opposed to the 90's-early 2000's where 100 win teams were not uncommon.

2. The "new" wildcard era with a 1-game playoff and the volatility that comes with it is likely a factor as to why 2 less-than-stellar pitching teams played for the 2014 World Series.

3. The recent change in how clubs value defense has added a much larger component to a teams success. Not to say that defense helped teams any less than it did in the 90's-2000's, but teams are becoming much more aware of the value of defense, which has strengthened the correlation between good defense and good teams.

4. Probably the most likely of all, similar to what Dave said, but the model by which we are valuing pitchers could be flawed. The basis of taking a teams aggregate pitching WAR in order to rank them #1-30 is not equal to doing the same with hitting. Good teams will often throw out a plethora of starters during the long regular season that would never stand a chance to throw a meaningful inning in a 5/7 game series. Consider this:

Jeremy Guthrie threw 148 regular season innings last year for the Royals, amassing a rather stellar:
5.93 ERA
1.551 WHIP
-1.8 WAR
It's safe to say that the Royals never expected Guthrie to pitch in the playoffs, and without including him the Royals would have ranked much higher than 15th overall.
I don't believe this to be a completely isolated incident, because I think playoff-caliber teams are forced to use a few replacement-level (or worse) pitchers during the 162 game regular season in order to preserve their premier arms for the playoffs. The range in productivity from top to bottom in pitching (I would assume) largely amasses that of hitting. Thus, I believe this list could perhaps draw more conclusions by perhaps taking the top 3 starters/relievers from each team, instead of the entire staff over the course of the year.



Nothing too profound here, I am aware. Critiques welcome!
3:49 PM Feb 22nd
 
Brock Hanke
steve - One of the effects, which I get to watch up close because I live in St. Louis, is that there are teams that try to maintain a consistent success by not worrying about the World Series at all. Just here, both Whitey Herzog and Tony La Russa said, essentially, that you can't win the Series if you don't get to the playoffs. Elsewhere, both Bobby Cox and Earl Weaver had records with lots and lots of playoff appearances, but few WS wins. With the Cardinals, I know that it's a matter of sweating the bench. This year, for example, they tried to get a superstar, chasing David Price and Jason Heyward. But, since neither worked out, they used their money to shore up the bench. Their shortstop, who is aging, wore down at the end of the year. So they got a new backup shortstop. Their star catcher is 34 and coming off a thumb injury. So they picked up a well-respected backup catcher, just in case. They signed a setup man / closer from Korea, despite the fact that they already have a setup man and a closer. These things are designed to prevent the down seasons. Last year, the Cardinals missed very large amounts of playing time from their ace starter, their #3 hitter and their #4 hitter. They won 100 games anyway, because they had enough bench to cover for all that loss. But they did not make the Series. These teams don't tend to have the really lousy seasons that other teams do when trading all their veterans for minor league prospects, but they also don't often have all their talent mature at the same time and become a two-year juggernaut.
2:38 PM Feb 21st
 
steve161
I suggest that the luxury tax is an element in the phenomenon David Kaiser is talking about, which Bud Selig liked to call 'parity'. The only way to assemble a Phillie-like rotation today is to get 'em while they're young, à la the Mets. The only way to keep them together over time is to exceed the luxury tax limit, which few teams seem willing to do (and those that are work to get back under it).

The luxury tax is the next best (worst) thing to a salary cap, which is an even stronger force for mediocrity. In the sports I follow, few teams manage to remain contenders for more than a few years. Those that do (the Cardinals, the Blackhawks) walk a tightrope: if player development doesn't come through nearly every year to replace performers who have become too expensive to keep, down years are inevitable. Even the Giants followed their champtionships by missing the playoffs.

Make no mistake: if your goal is parity, this is the price of it.
2:46 PM Feb 20th
 
KaiserD2
Sorry, rtayatay, I see I mispelled your handle.
7:37 AM Feb 20th
 
KaiserD2
I'm not sure which "it" you are referring to, mytayaday, but the most striking feature of the last decade or so--and particularly the last 5 years or so--is the general regression to mediocrity. Those 2010 Phillies were a real exception--very few teams have been really good at anything lately, and their winning percentages show it. Last year's Blue Jays were one of the few exceptions. They were more than 100 runs better than any other team in baseball, but they couldn't make it to the World Series.

There has been a very clear and measurable decline in the number of top individual performances in the last dozen years or so. Measured per league and team, those performances were extraordinarily stable in number throughout the first century of MLB as we know it. But I'm beginning to think--this is tentative--that it was PEDs that kept the frequency of such performances at the same level in the 1990s and early 2000s. Now they are much less common. The interesting question is whether the frequency of such seasons has dropped because MLB isn't developing enough outstanding players any more, or whether it has dropped because average performance has gotten significantly better.
7:36 AM Feb 20th
 
rtayatay
Could it be an effect of the dropping level of runs per game? I wonder if you measured offense, if the value of a great offense flipped as well, from not as valuable during the high-offense era, to more meaningful now that offensive levels have dropped.
11:59 PM Feb 19th
 
KaiserD2
This article raises some issues that are playing a big part in my book in progress (which I anticipate will be available in about a year.) I will content myself with two short comments.

1. Reaching and winning the World Series, once you are in the postseason, has mainly become a matter of luck. To me this is very sad, because it means that there is really no incentive to put together a really great team--you will still have much less than a 50% chance of going all the way. There certainly doesn't seem to be any shortcut to reaching the world series.

2. Pitching played a uniquely important role in baseball from the early 1990s until about the middle fo the last decade. There were more pitchers sustaining great performance into and through their thirties than in any other era. In addition, because of free agency, they could move. And thus, there were several dynasties, led by the Braves and the Yankees, whose value was mainly--sometimes entirely--in their pitching staff. (I talked about this in my SABR presentation last year.) Such teams have once again become much rarer since about the middle of the last decade, for reasons that you might be able to figure out, if you give it some thought.

One team that deserved a mention, by the way, was the 2011 Phillies. they had one of the great pitching staffs of all time, worth 19 Wins Above average by reckoning. But they got eliminated n the first round of the playoffs.

David K
6:23 PM Feb 19th
 
raincheck
Great piece.

One thing. The USE of pitchers changes in the playoffs and especially the series. The fifth starter disappears. The closer goes more than an inning. What might matter more is the quality of the CORE of the pitching staff. If a team is weak around the edges that weakness may dissapear in the series. If you took the the pitchers used in the series, weighted by actual innings pitched, I wonder if the differences would shrink. Teams use more pitchers now than I the past and the winnowing for the series may be statistically significant.

Notice I said if YOU took the pitchers.... I am a lazy bum who just reads your great work.
4:18 PM Feb 19th
 
bearbyz
Both top 3s in 1985 dominate. There is a 1.7 percent difference in 1985 and a 3.2 percent difference in 2015. After the top three 4 thru 10 on both lists seem close together. The real outlier is Gooden. He is number one by 3.9 percent. His ration is more than 25 percent higher than the next pitcher. I think we all forget how good Gooden was that year.
12:07 PM Feb 19th
 
Brock Hanke
I wonder about a fourth possibility - the correlation having to be spread out over more pitchers per rotation. I can easily remember Bob Gibson pitching games 1, 4, 7. At the time, that was the norm. Now, it's more like 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3. One start has gone from the ace to the 4th starter, and that's assuming that the rotation didn't get messed up by the playoffs. Actually, the second does not strike me as a big problem. If you have to use your ace to win the last playoff game, then your Series rotation is 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 1 or some such. But, in any case, teams now are getting less out of their top starters, in the Series, than they used to. I think it's possible that, right now, the quality of the whole pitching staff, over the season, is more dominated by the top starters than the Series is. But, sigh, it also might be the other way. The regular season's ranking may be influenced by how good the #5 starter and the middle relievers are, whereas those are the guys who are NOT going to be pitching in the Series. I don't know. Do you have any quick way to take a granular look at who is pitching in the Series?
11:54 AM Feb 19th
 
Richallen7
If you went back to the last big pitching era would you find similar I wonder?
11:02 AM Feb 19th
 
gejerz
Dave, Terrific article that makes you think. Thank you. My initial reaction was confusion as to what you could have missed. And then it was more confusion, so I reached beyond the logical. And I admit, I do not have the data to support this question. Maybe it isn't about the players? I know, heresy.

In 2000 MLB took over the supervision of Umpires under a single umbrella instead of the previous structure of two league supervision. As a result, maybe the strike zone evolved over that time frame? The 'low strike' that people are currently talking about for example?

Yes this would impact both teams. But it might not have impacted all pitchers evenly.

Now I will push further into the twilight zone, perhaps this leap of mine is a function of fighting a cold bug and not sleeping much last night. Some fans viewed the Braves pitching staff of the late 90's, for example, as having their own private strike zone. It seemed as if those top pitchers earned, over time and experience, a larger strike zone. Maybe, when supervised by each league, umpires allowed a starting pitcher to earn their strike zone and they got more calls on the edges. Maybe with the advent of Questec and the digital strike, umpires had to be more egalitarian (and also as a result called more low strikes.)

Questec initiated in 1998 it seems, but if memory serves, it was initially only in a few parks, and the process took time.

So, the evolution of MLB umpires and digital strike calling, may have resulted in .... and now I know I am reaching, a higher floor for pitchers that were listed as #3 or #4 in their rotation? And thus a much tighter distribution of pitching WAR? I think there is a relationship here, but I probably have the effect wrong.

Where did I put that bottle of DayQuil?






6:58 AM Feb 19th
 
greggborgeson
Interesting article. But I think using ranking by team WAR can be misleading. Differences in rank can indicate significant differences in talent -- or they can be close to arbitrary. Look at team pitching WAR for 2015 (Fangraphs). The team ranking 3rd had 21.7 WAR. 4th was also 21.7. 5th was 21.3. 6th was 21.1. 7th was 21.0 8th was 20.8. 9th was 20.4. If all we know is that the White Sox pitching was ranked 9th and the Pirates was ranked 3rd, we might conclude that the Pirates had a significantly stronger staff. But that was hardly the case in 2015.
6:22 AM Feb 19th
 
chuck
It looks like the WAR version you were using is Fangraphs, and is the version that is based on Fielding Independent Pitching. Using the RA9-WAR version that includes batted ball and sequencing runs (found within the same Value box on Fangraphs), these are the last 10 years of World Series participants, with their RA9-WAR rank:

2015 KCR (3) over NYM (11)
2014 SFG (22) over KCR (5)
2013 BOS (6) over STL (10)
2012 SFG (16) over DET (10)
2011 STL (23) over TEX (6)
2010 SFG (1) over TEX (2)
2009 NYY (10) over PHI (17)
2008 PHI (8) over TBR (4)
2007 BOS (1) over COL (6)
2006 STL (22) over DET (1)

The Royals were just 15th in fWAR, but 3rd in RA9-WAR.
The 2010 matchup is the #4 vs the #3 in fWAR, but #1 vs #2 in the other version.
Boston was just #6 by fWAR in 2007, but #1 in RA9-WAR.
Detroit was only #7 by fWAR in 2006, but #2 by the other version.

The #1 team appeared in 3 world series, winning 2.
The #2 team only got to the W.S. once, losing to the #1 team.

Looking at all the #1's and #2's:
#1 teams in RA9 WAR appeared in 6 of the 10 postseasons.
2 W.S. wins, 1 loss.
1 LCS loss, and 2 LDS losses.

#2 teams in RA9 WAR appeared in 9 of the 10 postseasons.
1 World Series loss.
3 LCS losses and 5 LDS losses.
1:11 AM Feb 19th
 
OldBackstop
Hi Dave, great piece. When I read through this I had several thoughts:

-- were the league WAR rankings tilted due to the DH? Maybe just looking at pennants would be more straight up apples/apples.

-- would just looking at the 2nd half WARS be vastly different? As Bruce mentioned, first half Mets had nothing to do with October.

-- were the top pitching teams that flopped bounced in tight bad luck series?

I'm not asking you to answer these....just thoughts I had :-)
12:08 AM Feb 19th
 
DaveFleming
The most Waffle House-ish pitching staff of all-time was the 1913 Philadelphia Athletics.
8:40 PM Feb 18th
 
evanecurb
I like the floor theory. It's worth examining further. What are the implications? Taken to its logical conclusion, it means that average pitchers have less value than average position players. But if that's true, how does one explain the huge difference in WAR between an average pitcher and a replacement level pitcher?

I have no idea how the Mets ended the year as the 7th best pitching staff in MLB in 2015. At midseason, they were playing .500 ball while being last in the league in runs scored. This alone indicates there could be a problem with WAR as a metric. Couldn't be all park effects. Or could it?

Thought provoking article. You're writing some really good stuff these days.

Is it fair to say that the 2005 Astros had a Waffle House pitching staff?


7:33 PM Feb 18th
 
those
Not sure what it means, but I checked the rankings for teams in pitching WAR (Fangraphs) from 1920 to 1930.

In both 1920 and 1930, the top two teams in pitching WAR met in the World Series.

But from 1921 to 1929, neither of the top two teams in pitching WAR ever met in the World Series. From 1921 to 1925, one of the teams was in the bottom half of the majors. In 1926, BOTH the Yankees and Cardinals were in the bottom half of MLB.

So maybe pitching didn't mean all that much in the 1920s, either.......
7:21 PM Feb 18th
 
Gfletch
Dave, I am just wondering…how often should we expect the best pitching teams to be in the World Series? You would expect it more often before divisional play, right? Less often the more teams there are in the post season. As a quick rule of thumb, pitching and defense is half the game, and pitching perhaps is 70% of that, or 35% of the whole deal. So an all other things being equal argument would suggest that having the best pitching staff in the NL or AL would see you in the World Series about 35% of the time? But in the years you tracked 45% reached the World Series. Perhaps the teams with the best staffs were actually overachieving during this period. Of course, my math is probably simplistic (I’m a simple man).
6:32 PM Feb 18th
 
steve161
Dave, another good thought-provoking piece.

I share your suspicion that WAR is part of the problem, but not only for the reason you suggest. Any metric that's based on whole-season performance is going to be at least slightly off, because the pitching staff that goes to the Series is not necessarily the one that was there all season (e.g. Johnny Cueto with the Royals).

Which is not to say that WAR's underrating of relief pitching is not also an issue. It clearly is: once again, the WAR-based projection systems are generally picking the Royals to struggle to reach five hundred, and apparently they'll keep doing so until it finally happens.

Your conclusion seems sound. Clearly we're in a pitching-dominated era, which probably means there aren't as many dogs to kick.

By the way: which WAR?
6:29 PM Feb 18th
 
 
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