Does pitching really win championships? Yes, but …

21 10 2015

This concludes my series on Yankee starting pitchers.

This series started with an observation that the Yankees haven’t had many all-time great starters, but have won more world championships than any other team. I raised the question then about how could that be, if pitching actually wins championships?

I’ve covered notable pitchers in a variety of posts since then: Yankees in the Hall of Fame, Yankees who belong in the Hall of Fame, Yankees who had great careers but won’t make the Hall of Fame, and so on.

But I still haven’t thoroughly examined the question that started this discussion. So that’s where I’ll wrap it up. The Yankees have won so many championships without all-time great starting pitchers for a variety of reasons:

  • Pitching does win championships, but so do other factors. Yankee champion teams were often better at those factors than at starting pitching.
  • Pitching does win championships, but even an all-time great starting pitcher pitches only every few days. Depth of a rotation might be more important to winning a championship than having an all-time great as your No. 1 starter.
  • Pitching does win championships, but starting pitching is not all of pitching. Yankee closers rank higher on all-time-best lists than Yankee starters.
  • Managing, especially management of the pitching staff, wins championships.
  • Yankee starting pitchers have actually been pretty great. If not for the Hall of Fame biases against Yankees (and against longevity), Yankees would easily have more pitchers in the Hall of Fame than any other team.

I’ll elaborate on these points in order:

What wins championships?

Winning championships is a result of winning games. Winning games is a result of scoring more runs than the other team. So championships are built exactly 50/50 on the ability to score and the ability to prevent scoring.

A Hall of Fame pitcher who can pitch shutout ball can’t win a game if his team can’t score. John Smoltz did exactly that for seven and a third innings in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series. But, since his Braves couldn’t score against Jack Morris, his team didn’t win the World Series. The Twins won off the Braves’ bullpen in the 10th inning.

Half of baseball success is your offense, the factors that score runs: getting on base, stealing bases, running the bases on balls in play, advancing runners, driving runs in, avoiding stupid outs, putting the ball in play, hitting the ball out of the park, drawing walks, offensive strategy.

Half of baseball success is your defense, factors that prevent runs. Pitching is a huge part of this (breakdown coming in the next section), but defense is significant, too: Eight different players (plus the pitcher) can affect the outcome of a season by how well they:

  • Catch
  • Throw
  • Tag
  • Anticipate where batters will hit the ball
  • Cover ground
  • Read the path of the ball
  • Judge whether to dive for a catch or field a short hop
  • Back up bases
  • Throw to the right base
  • Block pitches in the dirt
  • Scoop throws out of the dirt
  • Turn the double play (and know when to hang onto the ball at second because you don’t have a chance to get the runner at first)
  • Leap to catch a ball against or over the outfield wall
  • Dive into the stands or dugout for foul balls
  • Play caroms off the outfield walls
  • Understand the dimensions of your field
  • Play in for bunts
  • Choose whether to take the easy out at first or go after the lead runner on a bunt
  • Play the infield in or back with a man on third
  • Shift against pull hitters
  • Cover first if a batted ball pulls the first baseman off the bag
  • Throw home when you can prevent a run
  • Throw out base stealers (I’m not sure whether holding runners close counts as part of pitching or fielding, but it’s part of preventing runs)
  • Make a play way out of position (think Derek Jeter cutting Jeremy Giambi down at home from foul territory on the first base side)
  • Probably a few defensive factors I’m overlooking

As many factors are involved, fielding is probably only 10 to 15 percent of preventing runs. But that makes pitching 35 to 40 percent of a team’s success. That’s a lot, the biggest factor in success, but still a minority.

The pitching rotation

Ron Guidry, photo I took in 1977 with his daughter

Ron Guidry, photo I took in 1977 with his daughter

As I noted earlier in a post on the MVP cases for Ron Guidry and Justin Verlander in their best years, ace pitchers having great years are probably the most valuable players on their teams or leagues, because they have a bigger impact on the outcomes of the games they play, and actually affect more plays each year than everyday players.

But the fact is that even a pitcher who’s on his way to the best-ever discussion pitches only about 20 percent of your games (25 percent for the first few decades of the Yankees’ championship years). And No. 1 pitchers in the rotation often match up against each other, meaning that you lose even some games when your all-time great pitches exceptionally.

So championships don’t depend just on having a great pitcher like Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson leading the rotation. You need strong pitchers in at least the 2, 3 and 4 slots (a strong fifth pitcher gets you to the post-season, but travel days might limit his role in October). Mike Torrez was only the Yankees’ fourth-best pitcher in 1977 (Guidry, Ed Figueroa and Don Gullett all had better won-loss records, ERAs and more strikeouts). But you need four strong starters in the post-season, and Torrez won two World Series games.

So the Yankees’ 20-game winners and pretty good pitchers have been as important to their championship success as their Hall of Famers, Cy Young winners and pitchers who belong in the Hall of Fame.

The bullpen

Starting pitchers are critical to a team’s success, but increasingly, bullpens have pitched more of the important final innings.

Yankee Mariano Rivera is the undisputed best closer of all-time, playing key roles in the Yankees’ last five championships.

Goose Gossage was another Yankee who was among the best ever, closing for their 1978 champions. But the Yankees’ bullpen has included other greats, including Cy Young Award winner Sparky Lyle, former single-season saves-record holder Dave Righetti and Luis Arroyo, sixth in the MVP voting (behind three teammates) with 15 wins and 29 saves for the 1961 Yankees.

And it’s not just the closer who’s important in the bullpen. Middle relievers and set-up men sometimes have to bridge the game from the starter to the closer. Yankee champions have featured such relievers as Dick Tidrow and Jeff Nelson, who helped deliver leads to their closers. Set-up man (and All-Star) Dellin Betances was as important as any player in helping this year’s Yankees make it to the wild card game.

Managers win championships

Casey Stengel's autograph on a ball my wife's uncle used to take to Yankee Stadium in the 1950s. The ball now belongs to my son Mike.

Casey Stengel’s autograph on a ball my wife’s uncle used to take to Yankee Stadium in the 1950s. The ball now belongs to my son Mike.

Ralph Houk, one of many Yankee autographs from the 1950s my wife's uncle collected on two baseballs that now belong to my sons. This one belongs to Mike.

Ralph Houk, one of many Yankee autographs from the 1950s my wife’s uncle collected on two baseballs that now belong to my sons. This one belongs to Mike.

The Yankees have been guided by five Hall of Fame managers: Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Bucky Harris, Casey Stengel and Joe Torre. And Billy Martin and Ralph Houk could be (and probably should be) Hall of Famers.

They managed their pitching staffs differently, but each was a master at using pitchers as they were used in his day: motivating them, knowing who was hot, knowing when it was time to go to the bullpen, etc.

Yankee starters are underrated

Let’s start with the fact that the Yankees have as many starting pitchers who pitched primarily for their team in the Hall of Fame as any other team of the World Series era: Whitey Ford, Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Herb Pennock, Waite Hoyt and Jack Chesbro. That number isn’t nearly proportional to the Yankees’ 27 championships, but it’s a strong start.

Catfish Hunter is in the Hall of Fame primarily for his pitching for the Oakland A’s, but he had a 20-win season for the Yankees and was a starter on two of their championship teams.

Similarly, Roger Clemens, who would be in the Hall of Fame if not for suspicions about performance-enhancing drugs, contributed to two Yankee championships and won one of his seven Cy Young Awards for the Yankees. He is the only one of the Yankees’ four 300-game winners who contributed to any more than a division winner. As noted in the post linked above, none of these pitchers won even 100 games for the Yankees.

Three Yankee starters, as noted early in this series, clearly belong in the Hall of Fame: Allie Reynolds, Tommy John and Ron Guidry. And three more, who pitched prime years for the Yankees, stack up well against Hall of Fame pitchers: Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and David Cone.

That’s 14 pitchers who probably belong on a top-100-starters list who pitched significant years for the Yankees. And more Yankees have won Cy Young Awards and had 20-win seasons, displaying greatness for a season or two, though not enough career greatness to merit Hall of Fame consideration.

Yes, pitching wins championships

No one who pitched primarily for the Yankees would make the top 10 or 15 pitchers of all-time, even if the underrated Yankees got their due. But the Yankees have had more great and good pitchers than any other team, so they have one of the best, if not the best, traditions of starting pitching.

Those starters have been backed up by the best collective bullpen of any team. Add that to great defense, hitting and managing, and their championships are easy to explain. Yankees didn’t show their starting pitching dominance the same way as they did at catcher or in the outfield, with best-ever candidates. But starting pitching demands depth, and the Yankees’ starters provided consistent and extensive depth.

Pitching wins championships. So does hitting. And fielding. And managing. The Yankees have excelled at all, and that’s why they have won 27 World Series.

Also in this series

Earlier posts in this series on Yankee starting pitchers:

Source note: Unless otherwise noted, all statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.

Correction invitation: I wrote this series of blog posts over several months, mostly late at night while unable to sleep while undergoing medical treatment. I believe I have fact-checked and corrected any errors, but I welcome you to point out any I missed: stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com. Or, if you just want to argue about my opinions, that’s fine, too.

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17 responses

21 10 2015
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