Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments |

Pitching not the most important part of the game


By Roger Weber


Every fan has heard the cliché. "Baseball is 90% pitching." Or "Good pitching always beats good hitting." Normally it is said after a strong pitching performance or a low scoring game. And it gets greater support when teams like the 2005 White Sox or '95 Braves win the World Series. But these are clichés. They are based on little real proof and can be backed up with a limited number of examples and memories.


1. It is tougher for an entire team to hit a pitcher than for one pitcher to pitch well against nine batters. If one batter hits off a pitcher, he may drive in a couple runs but his counterparts might not have the same success. But if a pitcher has "good stuff," he is pitching to every batter for several innings so his performance is far more noticeable than a potent offensive performance. We tend to notice more that a pitcher is blowing away an entire team of supposedly good hitters than when an offense shells a pitcher.


2. As I've said before, a lot of the major research has already been done. Sabermetrics has been improving baseball fandom for 30 years. And Bill James has been at the top of the sabermetric world. According to James, baseball is on average and a very unstable average, 45% hitting, 36% pitching, 16% fielding and 3% baserunning. These are the percentages by which each aspect of the game affect the outcomes of games. So according to James, who has indisputably done the research, hitting affects the game more than does pitching.


Pitch placement and speeds are the main ways pitchers can affect a game. Baseball is a game of tremendous strategy for both pitcher and batter in choosing where to throw the ball and when and where to swing. For a pitcher, "strikeouts per walks" is a valuable statistic because it eliminates the role of the batter's strength and bat skills. It measures his ability to place the pitch where he wants to place it, where the batter cannot hit it. Invariably a pitcher will throw both balls and strikes, but his ability to throw the right pitches at the right times to get outs and prevent runs is a good measure of his ability.


But when the pitch is hit, the batter has most of the influence on the pitch. Quite obviously a pitcher can place pitches in different parts of the strike zone to influence whether the hit will be a ground ball or a fly ball. But ultimately the batter's strength and bat position affect where the ball goes. The pitcher has little control over where the ball lands when it is hit. There is a 72% chance the hit ball will be an out. But if it lands a hit, this has likely been due to chance because the batter hit the ball at a certain point and a certain fielder was not in position to field the ball. So the batter holds more control over where a hit ball than does the pitcher. Thus many sabermetricians have resorted to measuring pitchers almost solely through their strikeout, walk and innings pitched statistics. While earned run average may still be more accurate, these conceptual ideas support the idea that pitching has less influence on the game than many fans suspect.


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