Pitching, Offense, and 'Protection'

October 17, 2012
 
The following tweet cycled through the commercial breaks during the international broadcasts of the early playoff games:
 
‘Pitching and defense: that’s how you win championships.’
 
I’m paraphrasing that…I didn’t write the exact words down, and I don’t know whose twitter feed deserves credit for the comment. I know the line was followed by some statement of team support, something along the lines of ‘Go Cardinals,’ but I can’t remember which team the tweeter was pulling for.
 
It’s an old axiom, of course: pitching and defense win championships. It’s a version of other, similar lines: Baseball is 70% pitching. Good pitching always beats good hitting. Heaven is a good bullpen. 
 
Somehow, that tweet wormed itself into my brain, enough that I decided to check if any of the four Division Series matchups had the potential to ‘test’ this theory. Specifically: I wondered if any of the matchups featured a good-hitting team going against a good-pitching team.
 
As it turns out, three of the four matchups showed at an imbalance in the quality of pitching and hitting. That is, in three of the four matchups, one team was clearly better on offense, and the other team was clearly better on the pitching/defense side of the game.  
 
I looked at three quick-and-dirty metrics: Adjusted OPS (OPS+) for hitters, Adjusted ERA (ERA+) for pitchers, and Defensive Efficiency. I used these metrics because they adjust for park effects (unlike using, say, runs scored/allowed), and because they give a solid measure of how well a team does in the three measures of hitting, pitching, and defense.
 
Looking at last week’s matchups one-by-one, starting in the NL:
 

 

 
OPS+
Rank
 
ERA+
Rank
Def. Eff.
Rank
Nationals
102
3rd (t)
 
119
2nd
.702
2nd (t)
Cardinals
107
1st (t)
 
104
6th (t)
.686
11th

 

 
The Cardinals had a slight edge on offense, tallying a team OPS+ of 107 to the Nationals 102 mark. The Nationals finished a respectable third in the NL in OPS+, but the Cards were one of two teams ahead of them.
 
On the pitching/defense side of things, the Nationals had a clear edge…their team ERA+ was the second-best in baseball, as was their defensive efficiency. The Cardinals had good pitching and defense, but the Nats, even absent Stephen Strasburg, had a clear edge in pitching and defense.
 
The Cardinals won, of course. The St. Louis hitters managed a stunning comeback against one of the best closers in baseball.
 
Offense: 1. Pitching/Defense: 0
 

 

 
OPS+
Rank
 
ERA+
Rank
Def. Eff.
Rank
Giants
107
1st (t)
 
95
11th
.693
8th
Reds
90
12th
 
127
1st
.699
4th

 

 
I think most casual baseball fans would assume that the Giants had an edge in pitching, while the Reds had the edge in offense. But when park factors are factored in, it becomes evident that the Giants of Posey and Pagan had a drastically better offense team than the Reds of Votto, Bruce, Phillips, and Ludwick. The Giants tied for first in the NL in Adjusted OPS, while the Reds finished a pedestrian 12th in that category.
 
But the Reds had the best pitching in baseball, by a considerable margin. Pitching in a hitter-friendly park, the Reds had a Cy Young-worthy season from Cueto, and strong performances from Latos, Arroyo, and Chapman. Meanwhile, the Giants vaunted rotation of Cain, Lincecum, Bumgarner, Vogelsong, and Zito was mostly a net neutral for the NL West champs: the Giants won their division because of their quietly great offense.
 
The Reds were the better on pitching and defense. The Giants were better on offense. This seems counter-intuitive, but it’s the truth. And: the better bats of the Giants won.
 
Offense: 2. Pitching/Defense: 0.
 
Maybe the AL can salvage things a bit…
 

 

 
OPS+
Rank
 
ERA+
Rank
Def. Eff.
Rank
A's
97
8th (t)
 
114
2nd
.704
3rd
Tigers
104
3rd
 
112
4th
.678
13th

 

 
In the Oakland/Detroit matchup, the Tigers, bolstered by Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, showed an edge over the upstart A’s. Granted, the A’s offense took a giant leap forward during the second half of the season, but Cespedes and Co. finished the year with an OPS+ lower that the Tigers hitters.
 
The A’s had a slightly better adjusted ERA, even with Justin Verlander’s routine brilliance. And the A’s enjoyed a significant edge in defense, turning close to 3% more balls-in-play into outs than the Tigers did.
 
If it’s true that pitching and defense wins championships, the A’s should’ve won this series. The Tigers did win the matchup.
 
Offense: 3. Pitching/Defense: 0.
 

 

 
OPS+
Rank
ERA+
Rank
Def. Eff.
Rank
Orioles
97
8th (t)
109
5th (t)
.699
6th
Yankees
112
2nd
109
5th (t)
.693
9th

 

 
The Orioles/Yankees series was the only matchup that didn’t have a compelling test of pitching and defense against hitting. The Yankees had a drastically better offense in 2012 than the Orioles, to a tune of 15 points in Adjusted OPS. On the pitching side, the teams were dead-even, tied with the fifth best adjusted ERA in the American League.
 
Looking at more advanced metrics, the Yankees probably merit an edge in offense and pitching: they have a better team FIP and xFIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching and Expected Fielding-Independent Pitching). Yankees pitchers tallied a higher WAR than Baltimore pitchers. So….this series isn’t really a test-case.
 
I wouldn’t make any conclusions from three round of playoff baseball that were as closely contested as this year’s Division Series games were. That said, if you were expecting that the teams with good pitching and defense would beat the teams with good offenses, the 2012 playoffs will have shaken your beliefs a little bit.
 
*             *             *
 
On the subject of ‘truths’ that might not be true….during the Detroit/Oakland matchup, announcer Buck Martinez addressed the importance of Prince Fielder being in the lineup to ‘protect’ Miguel Cabrera.
 
I wouldn’t really care, except Buck’s comments about how Prince’s protection enabling Cabrera to win the Triple Crown was supported by a graphic that a) showed a picture of Ryan Braun, with the line ‘2011 NL MVP’, followed by b) a shot of Miguel Cabrera with the line ‘2012 Triple Crown winner.’ The point was clear: Prince Fielder’s magical ‘protection’ helped Braun win the MVP in 2011, and Prince Fielder’s protection helped Miguel Cabrera win the Triple Crown in 2012.
 
I love Prince Fielder...he must be one of my ten favorite players in baseball. As such, I don't have any interesting in taking credit away from him. But the suggestion that Prince 'helped' Cabrera or Braun by batting behind them is ludicrous.
 
One thing that the graphic failed to mention is that Ryan Braun posted an identical Triple Crown line in 2012, without Prince Fielder hitting behind him:
 

 

 
R
HR
RBI
BA
SB
Braun, 2011
109
33
111
.332
33
Braun 2012
108
41
112
.319
30

 

 
If Prince Fielder was giving Ryan Braun protection….if Prince was making it impossible for pitchers to ‘pitch around’ Ryan Braun, isn’t it strange that Ryan Braun was able to hit more home runs without Fielder hitting behind him?
 
Buck Martinez should’ve mentioned this…and Don Orsillo should have known better than to harp on about protection. I mean, I don’t think Braun’s great 2012 season has exactly flown under the radar, even for two AL announcers. If you're going to claim that Prince protected Braun, shouldn't you mention that Braun's doing fine on his own? 
 
It's also worth mentioning that Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown season looks a lot like his 2010 season:
 

 

 
R
HR
RBI
BA
Miggy, 2012
109
44
139
.330
Miggy, 2010
111
38
126
.328

 

 
These seasons are practically identical....what isn’t identical is who ‘protected’ Cabrera each year.
 
In 2012, Cabrera batted third. He hit ahead of Prince Fielder, an elite hitter who posted a career high in batting average in 2012:
 

 

 
R
HR
RBI
BA
Miggy, 2012
109
44
139
.330
Fielder, 2012
83
30
108
.313

 

 
During Cabrera’s similarly great 2010 season, Miggy hit cleanup in the Detroit lineup. The guy who protected him that year? Rookie outfielder Brennan Boesch:
 

 

 
R
HR
RBI
BA
Miggy, 2010
111
38
126
.328
Boesch, 2010
49
14
67
.256

 

 
If protection is real, if it’s important, then I’d love someone to please explain how Miguel Cabrera was able to up the exact same numbers hitting ahead of Brennan Boesch in 2010, as he did hitting ahead of Prince Fielder in 2012.
 
Otherwise, please stop talking about protection like it’s some gigantic factor whenever someone has a big season with the bat. Protection might exist….there are certainly cases when a player’s batting line is influenced heavily by having a great hitter hitting ahead or behind him. But by tossing up misleading graphics as ‘proof’ of a theory, the announcers undermine their credibility as experts, and insult the intelligence of anyone who might have noticed that a) Miguel Cabrera was a terrific hitter before Prince Fielder came along, and b) Ryan Braun has remained a terrific hitter in Prince’s absence.
 
David Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 
 
 

COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

Marc Schneider
One problem I think is that analysts tend to be ex-players who really don't understand or have any interest in statistical analysis. They go on instinct and they are not open to questioning that. I think a lot of it has to do with the basic anti-intellectualism in sports, especially in baseball. You see it on MLB Network when they pair the ex-players with Brian Kenney, the guy that does the sabermetric analysis; the players are very condescending toward Kenney's numbers. Baseball players and managers are probably the least educated of all the sports, which is ironic considering that baseball tends to draw a pretty highly educated fan base.
3:02 PM Oct 31st
 
dinsdale
good article, although I would point out the pitcining staffs the Reds and Nationals had were weakened in the playoffs - Strasburg and Cueto
11:50 AM Oct 22nd
 
craigjolley
Dave,
[u]http://www.baseball-reference.com/ [/u] lists park adjustment factors by team. For the Reds/Giants example:

Runs Hitting Adj. Runs Pitching Adj.
Team Scored Factor Runs Allowed Factor Allowed
Reds 669 108 619 588 107 550
Giants 718 88 816 649 87 746

which coincides with your premise: Giants strong hitting, Reds pitching/defense. As I mentioned I agree with what you're saying--good article, worthy subject.
10:00 PM Oct 20th
 
ChitownRon
Protection may or may not be important, that I can agree with.

A manager however, has to try to give his team a better chance of winning.

Below are 2 possible options:

Option #1 (No protection as part of the strategy)
Should Cabrera be the lead off hitter?
He would have one at-bat that would guarantee no one on base in front of him, but possibly 1 more at bat in the game

Option #2 (Protection) Should the manager have the teams highest on base average player hitting in front of Cabrera? The theory being, that he would get better pitches to hit to avoid the walk, as Cabrera his hitting behind him.

Personally I like option #2
Even if the stats don't say that protection works,
a manager has to manage like it does.
6:30 PM Oct 20th
 
DaveFleming
Craig,

Is there somewhere that lists park-adjusted runs scored and runs allowed for teams?

I used OPS+ and ERA+ because a) bb-ref has those statistics sortable and by team, and b) those metrics are park-adjusted, so we're looking at truer measures of a team's offense and pitching.

The stats aren't perfect, but they did enough to convince me that, say, the Reds had better pitching/defense than the Giants, and that the Giants had a better offense than the Reds.


5:30 PM Oct 20th
 
craigjolley
Seems like you are saying a couple of things here: 1. Pitching and defense do not necessarily trump hitting. 2. Great hitters perform equally well whether or not they are followed (protected) by good hitters. I agree with both arguments, but I think you are needlessly complicating things. The true measure of a team's offense is scoring runs, and the true measure of of pitching and defense is preventing runs (not preventing earned runs), park adjusting runs if desired before looking at team vs. team performance. The practice of analyzing individual stats to attempt a measure of the player's contribution toward scoring or preventing runs makes sense, but combining individual indicators is less direct, less accurate than simply looking at runs.
10:41 AM Oct 20th
 
DaveFleming
Not to go down a rabbit hole perhaps best avoided, but....

It's possible that Braun, a RHH, had better protection with Aramis Ramirez (a fellow RHH) batting behind him, than he had with Prince Fielder (a LHH).

The Righty/Lefty set up is supposed to be best, but doesn't it seem like that set-up allows for MORE pitching around a hitter? If a lefty is on the mound, there is little incentive to pitch to a Ryan Braun or a Miguel Cabrera, when you can walk him and pitch to Fielder.

I don't know....there's a potential study there.....whether it's actually better to have opposite-side sluggers (Manny/Ortiz) or same-side sluggers (Ruth/Gehrig).
6:32 PM Oct 19th
 
mikewright
Can you imagine what Braun would have hit this year and Cabrera would have hit in 2010 if Fielder has been protecting them then?
10:55 AM Oct 19th
 
GOODFRIEND
Unfortunately this example is absolutely normal and the kind of thinking against which Bill James has been working for over 30 years. Almost all broadcasters do this; start with an idea which may or may not be correct, find one piece of corroborating evidence, ignore all other evidence, report as proven fact. It's infuriating.
12:24 PM Oct 18th
 
rgregory1956
It's amazing how often I use the mute button when watching sports.
10:08 AM Oct 18th
 
Marinerfan1986
Who said announcers had any creditbility as expertrs?
7:32 PM Oct 17th
 
 
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