MLB: Defense and Pitching Wins Championships



We've probably typed the phrase "defense and rebounding wins championships" a few thousands times over the past decade here in the NOTEBOOK when talking about college and pro basketball. We'll surely use the phrase again in the next two weeks during the NBA League Finals (our preview of Game One will run tomorrow!). We've been remiss in not placing the same kind of emphasis in baseball.

You know all about pitching. Some people think pitching is 80 or 90% of the game. What's become better understood in recent years is how big a role DEFENSE plays in our evaluation of pitchers.

  • Put a ground ball pitcher on the mound in front of good infielders, and he's going to have terrific stats.
  • Put a ground ball pitcher on the mound in front of slow fielders who are mostly in the lineup for their bats, and he's going to be in big trouble.
  • Put a fly ball pitcher on the mound in front of speedy outfielders in a spacious park, and he's going to be an All-Star.
  • Put a fly ball pitcher on the mound with slow-footed sluggers in the outfield, and he's going to be in big trouble.

You probably already use a variety of methods for ranking pitchers. How do you rank defenses? Do you even think about defenses? Or, do you just assume the pitcher is lousy if his numbers are lousy, regardless of who's in the field behind him.

Today we want to show you a quick and easy stat for evaluating the pitcher/defense nexus. It's called "Defensive Efficiency Ratio," and is simply a measure of the percentage of "balls in play" that are turned into outs. There are a few stat-based baseball reference sites that keep track of the stat. You won't have any trouble finding it if you want to stay on top of the numbers as the season progresses.

Here are the AL rankings through the games of Memorial Day...

Tampa Bay .720
Oakland .710
NY Yankees .705
Boston .703
Seattle .700
Texas .698

Let's stop there for a moment. Those seven teams are all above league average. And, you see a lot of quality in the group. Tampa Bay is in championship form again thanks to their emphasis on pitching and defense. The Yankees have made great strides from their prior reputation as a home for aging sluggers. Boston made it a point of emphasis to improve defense this year. Texas has been doing that under the current management regime as well.

Particularly now that the steroid era is over, winning championships is going to involve RUN PREVENTION rather than just trying to outscore everyone with dingers. The teams embracing that notion are having clear success thus far.

Continuing in the AL...

Toronto .690
Minnesota .689
Kansas City .688
Chicago White Sox .685
Baltimore .685
Detroit .677
LA Angels .674
Cleveland .673

Yes, the entire AL Central is in the bottom half of the league defensively! Minnesota is the best, and does lead its division. They're likely to be a bit outclassed come playoff time based on this metric. Note how many bottom of the barrel teams in your newspaper standings are really struggling in this stat. You know a stat is meaningful when there's a good correlation with the standings (or the adjusted standings that we showed you yesterday in the NOTEBOOK).

Over in the National League...

San Francisco .728
San Diego .717
Philadelphia .703
St. Louis .700
Washington .697
Atlanta .695
Colorado .694

There you go. That's the top two teams in the NL East (Philly and Atlanta), the favorite in the NL Central (St. Louis), and the top team in the NL West (San Diego). San Francisco and Colorado showed last year they're capable of making a run at the playoffs. They're in the mix as well.

Washington has made a huge step forward this year from their "annual laughingstock" role. They rank 5th in the league in this stat. It matters!

The below average teams...

Chicago Cubs .687
Florida .686
Cincinnati .686
NY Mets .682
LA Dodgers .682
Arizona .671
Pittsburgh .667
Houston .660
Milwaukee .643

There's been skepticism about Cincinnati as a true contender. This stat helps show why. The Dodgers focus on sluggers and strikeout pitchers, which hurts them in this stat. It is possible to win a pennant without grading out well here...but you have to be GREAT at slugging and GREAT with your strikeout pitchers. It's not fair to say this is a team of Manny Ramirez-types. does skew in that direction.

The early season disasters are accounted for, with the bottom four teams above all posting very ugly won-lost records. Milwaukee is a team of Manny Ramirez types that doesn't have great strikeout pitching! Houston is barely a major league team right now.

So, how much of baseball is pitching, and how much is defense? Again, it can be tough to get a true read because how you "define" the terms shapes the discussion. When handicapping, try to think of baseball this way:

  • 50% of baseball is run scoring, as half of every game is spent trying to put runs on the board.
  • 50% of baseball is run prevention, as half of every game is spent trying to prevent the other team from scoring.
  • Within the 50% that is run prevention, the breakdown is about 40-43% pitching, and 7-10% defense. The Defensive Efficiency stat we showed you today nails the 50% head on, so you don't have to worry about who gets credit for what.

We hope you'll watch the TV games this week with a new perspective. We think the data we presented today will help you do a better job of picking both sides and totals. It will probably also talk you out of chasing teams you're tempted to back because of the "due theory." Teams may seem like they're "due" to win some games. Teams with crappy pitching and defenses aren't really like to get things moving in the right direction though.

Here are the matchups we'll be watching closely the next couple of days:
Philadelphia at Atlanta (top two teams in NL East)
Cincinnati at St. Louis (top two teams in NL Central)
NY Mets at San Diego
Colorado at San Francisco
Oakland at Boston
Tampa Bay at Toronto

If you'd like to put state-of-the-art handicapping to work for you this baseball season, call JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK at 1-800-323-4453. You can also purchase game day releases and our BLUE RIBBON package here at the website with your credit card.

Our SCOUTS AND SOURCES with every team let us know what's going on with key injuries and team chemistry. That becomes very important once you reach JUNE on the calendar because the wear and tear starts to take its toll both physically and emotionally.

Our STAT HANDICAPPERS crunch all the numbers to find the best value plays each and every night. Vegas oddsmakers still haven't fully mastered something simple like ballpark effects...which we were utilizing to pick winners when NETWORK first started more than 20 years ago.

Our COMPUTER PROGRAMMERS use state of the art modeling and game simulation software to play out every game thousands of times.

Our WISE GUY CONNECTIONS let us know what the smart money is doing, and what the dumb money is doing.

Any of those factors individually would make you a winner. IMAGINE THE POWER OF THE COMBINATION!

Back with you tomorrow to look at Game One of the Lakers/Celtics series in the NBA Finals. Now, call 1-800-323-4453 so you can win big TONIGHT with JIM HURLEY!


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