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Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments |

Starting pitchers and position players: Who's more valuable?


By Roger Weber


When a team makes a playoff push late in the season, fan sentiment often says the team needs one more good player to bring the team to the best it reasonably can be. Normally they mean the team needs one more starting pitcher, perhaps a legitimate #5 starter or a third ace to supplement two stars. This seems to boost many teams to that playoff berth, but while it works sometimes it does not at others. In 2004 the White Sox spent quite a bit of money on Freddy Garcia, whom they hoped would lead their slightly over-500 team to the division title. But the White Sox fell into third place by mid-August.


Fans have a very high opinion of the importance of starting pitching. But are starting pitchers really that valuable. A good one, of course, can help a team to a good start once every five days. If he starts 30 games and consistently can go several innings giving up few runs, he may help the team get 20 wins in those 30 games. But an offensive player who creates 110 runs may have a similar effect. This player is producing 30 more runs than an average player. The 2005 Oakland Athletics barely missed the playoffs, and they lost 24 1-run games. Those 30 extra runs could have helped them get several more wins.


But what are the values scientifically? If Bill James is right, which we can assume for the most part he is then pitching is worth 36/45 of hitting to a team's success. So if a pitcher pitched every pitch and a batter had all his team's plate appearances, the hitter would be more valuable. But hitters only come up 1/9 of the time. We'll assume for our purposes that the player plays every day and gets exactly 1/9 of his team's plate appearances.


A pitcher pitches once every five days in the modern game. So if pitching is worth 36/45 of hitting and a pitcher pitches 9/5 as much as batters bat, then a pitcher, if he pitches every inning of games he starts, then he is worth about 65/45 of an everyday hitter. Starting pitchers usually don't go full games, though. A starting pitcher must pitch a little over six innings in his starts to be an equal contributor to the team as one batter who takes 1/9 of his team's plate appearances. This of course assumes the players are of equal skill.


Many starters do pitch more than six innings per start, but even if they pitch seven or more, they still don't hold the commanding advantage in true value over position players. In the National League, pitchers bat. If they are better hitters than the average pitcher their value increases, too. But remember also that many position players have more important fielding jobs than pitchers, which increases their worth. Pitchers generally do hold a slight edge in total value to position players.  They also must pitch 50-60 pitches to warm up, which theoretically could be added to their performance to even innings pitched discrepancies between relievers and starters. But the gap between starting pitching and position players/hitters is not as wide as many fans believe. A good centerfielder can improve a team too.


Unfortunately we seem to not to judge position players as well as pitchers. We use statistics based on “runs” to measure pitchers, a good method, and not with other players, so teams built on pitching are often dominant over teams built on hitting.




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