Pitching wins baseball. Or so we ‘ve been told. Over and over again. Every baseball fan has heard a litany of cliches about pitching being the key to success on the baseball diamond. They ‘re part of the folklore passed from one generation of baseball fans to the next.
“You can ‘t have too much pitching.”
“Pitching is 75 percent of the game.”
“Good pitching beats good hitting.”
“Pitching is 90 percent of the game.”
These platitudes have been repeated so often by so many that it seems like they ought to be true. Problem is, like many cliches, they aren ‘t. Watched pots never boil, really?
Winning a baseball game is equally the product of run production and run prevention. Run production depends on hitting and base running. Run prevention on pitching and fielding.
Bill James was one of the first analysts to rigorously debunk the myth of the overriding importance of pitching’s role. A few years ago, he offered these estimates of the contribution for each factor: Baseball is 42 percent hitting, 8 percent base running, 37 percent pitching and 13 percent fielding.
Notice how James ‘run production numbers add up to 50 and the run prevention numbers do, too?
In research published in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, Dr. Charles Pavitt crunched data on hitting, pitching and fielding for every major league team over a 48-year period (1951-1998). He found that hitting accounts for more than 45 percent of teams ‘winning records, fielding for 25 percent and pitching for 25 percent.
Simply put, there ‘s no one set formula for a World Series championship. Some teams certainly do win because of their strong pitching. But having the best arms is not an infallible recipe for success. The 2011 Cardinals and 2009 Yankees are often presented as recent examples of teams that won primarily on the strength of their hitting.
In baseball, as in other industries, value is determined by scarcity. That ‘s basic supply and demand. While labor markets in professional baseball are far from perfectly free, they still essentially follow economic principles. As with economic decision-makers generally, managing scarcity is the basic problem confronting major league front offices.
Evidence is overwhelming that in recent years, productive hitters have become scarce relative to effective pitchers. And that rarity makes them more valuable.
Since the 2009 season, the number of hitters with 30 home runs in a season declined from 30 to just 11. The number who hit at least 20 homers has fallen from 87 to 57.
Using another measure of power (ISO), the number of players with an ISO greater than .190 has fallen over that same time from 64 to 28. ISO takes doubles and triples into account, in addition to home runs. That means the average team has gone from having two of those hitters to one in just six seasons.
Players who hit .300 have also become more uncommon. In 2009, 42 major league hitters batted .300. This season, only 16 did.
On the flip side, quality pitchers are easier to find. Take ERA as a metric. The number of starting pitchers with an ERA below 4.00 has risen from 43 to 65 since 2009. The number with an ERA below 3.50 has grown from 23 to 36 in the same time. You ‘ll find similar trends in SIERA and FIP.
You want strikeouts? The number of starting pitchers with more than an 18 percent strikeout rate has risen from 28 in the year 2000 (about one per team) to 51 in 2014 (nearly two per team). The same goes for relief pitchers. The number of relievers with strikeout-rates above 22 percent has nearly tripled since 2000.
You want a hard-thrower? They ‘re practically growing on trees. In 2007, just 33 starters had a fastball velocity of 91 mph or above. In 2014, out of 88 who qualified, there were 55. Average fastball velocity for relievers has increased from 91.1 mph in 2007 to 92.5 mph today. For starting pitchers, those numbers are 89.8 and 91.4 respectively. Baseball America recently found that 52 minor league pitchers threw 100-mph fastballs this year.
Given these trends with individual hitters and pitchers, it ‘s not a shock that run prevention has begun to dominate run production throughout baseball.
Major league batting average (.251) and on base percentage (.314) in 2014 were the lowest they have been since 1972, the season before the DH was adopted in the AL. Slugging (.386) in 2014 was its lowest since 1981, a decline from .418 since 2009.
ERA overall has fallen from 4.77 in 2000 to 4.32 in 2009 and 3.74 in 2014. Strikeouts per nine innings (7.70) and the ratio of strikeouts-per walks (2.67) were higher in 2014 than they have ever been in the history of baseball. Mike Maffie documented much of this a few weeks ago.
In terms of runs scored per game, the number fell to 4.07 in 2014, its lowest since 1981 and the back-to-back seasonal average of 2013 and 2014 was the lowest for consecutive years since 1975-76.
Here’s a bit of history to give those numbers context: Baseball reacted to scoring reaching a low of 3.42 runs/game in 1968 by shrinking the strike zone and lowering the pitching mound. Scoring jumped to 4.07 runs/game. That number stabilized around 4.30 runs/game until the mid-80s when scoring started to inch upward, reaching 4.72 runs/game in 1987. Baseball adjusted the strike zone again and scoring fell back to 4.15 runs/game in 1988.
Then came PEDs. In 1992, runs/game stood at 4.12. Within five years, it had reached 5.04 runs/game and headed even higher, reaching a peak of 5.14 r/g in the year 2000. Run production didn ‘t decline significantly until 2008, the season after the Mitchell Report was published.
Factors in addition to a cleaner game have eroded run scoring. Defensive shifts, bullpen depth and specialization, surging fastball velocity and an expanding strike zone have each played an important role.
The Reds Have Too Much Run Prevention
The challenge for a general manager is building the best baseball team possible operating under a budget constraint. That means allocating resources where they have the greatest marginal value.
The Cincinnati Reds haven ‘t escaped the gravitational pull of the collapsing run environment outlined above. Despite playing half their games in the Great American Small Park, in 2014, the Reds were 28th in runs scored, 29th in on-base-percentage, 20th in isolated power and 29th in wRC+.
Meanwhile, they were among league leaders (8th in MLB) in run prevention, due to their starting pitching but also because of their #1-rated defense.
The platitude “you can ‘t have enough pitching” is wildly inapplicable when Joey Votto and Jay Bruce get hurt. In isolation, you can ‘t have enough hitting or defense, either. But teams don ‘t operate with unlimited resources. Offense and pitching trade off because of resource constraints. You certainly can have too much pitching if payroll limits mean your team has too little hitting.
Given the Reds great defense, it hasn’t proven difficult to find capable starting pitching. The Reds lost Johnny Cueto to injury for most of 2013, in stepped Tony Cingrani. When Bronson Arroyo left and Mat Latos started the 2014 season on the DL, Alfredo Simon did the job. At the end of 2014, when Homer Bailey got hurt, he was replaced capably by Dylan Axelrod and David Holmberg.
The overall trend in baseball doesn’t mean that specific teams might not still need to acquire their own dominant pitching. But it ‘s crystal clear that the Reds aren’t one of them. They desperately need to upgrade their run scoring relative to run prevention.
Capitalizing on Market Inefficiencies
These fast changing conditions have profound implications for the player market and how the Reds should operate this offseason.
The front office must come to grips with the reality that the value of baseball players has changed radically in the last five years. Productive hitters have become the scarce commodity that effective pitching was ten years ago. The fact that this has happened in the blink of an eye doesn’t make it any less real or crucial. But it does present an opportunity.
Walt Jocketty won seven NL Central division titles with the Cardinals from 1996-2006, NL Championships in 2004 and 2006 and the World Series in 2006. His 2005 team also won 100 games.
In that era, focusing on run prevention and stockpiling pitching was how teams generally won games and championships. Today you have to ask if holding on to every last pitcher is still the way to reach the postseason and win the World Series.
General managers who learned their lessons in the Steroid Era and haven ‘t changed may still follow the now out-of-date pitching cliches. They may have lost touch with accurate player valuation.
The Reds not only can ‘t afford to be one of those out-of-step clubs, they need to exploit that market inefficiency. The Reds must take advantage of the rapidly shifting player market and their own relative surplus of starting pitching. They need to identify trading partners who still believe that “pitching is the currency of baseball” and trade run prevention for run production while the exchange rate is favorable.