Does Pitching Still Win Championships?

With multiple, intriguing storylines swirling in the October wind at the World Series this year, perhaps the most interesting one was lost to the common spectator. What many forget, or simply didn’t realize, was that this series directly contradicted the old baseball adage that, “Pitching wins championships.”

For the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox to square off, it took Major League Baseball’s best offense, Boston, in runs (853) and OBP (.349) to take on the National League’s best offense, St. Louis. The numbers suggest that in order to even put a ball club in position to win a championship, teams need to trot out players who can get on base and score runs – in bunches. (Really if pitching got teams to the World Series the Detroit Tigers would have won the AL pennant with their Cerberus pitching attack of Scherzer, Verlander, and Sanchez.)

So while the two best offenses in baseball got their teams to the Fall Classic, were they the reason their teams won? Or, like the age-old mantra suggests, did pitching come through for two teams who were based around bats?

Since the most vital tenant of baseball is to, simplistically, score more runs than the opposition in order to win, which seems a fitting start for any team who wants to achieve something. Getting to the World Series is as an arduous accomplishment as any, but how the team plays when they get there is what defines them. To look at how a team performed in the regular season doesn’t hold any merit on how they play in the playoffs. Examples at the extreme include the 2001 Seattle Mariners with 116-46 regular season record, who promptly lost to the Yankees in the ALCS in five games. Then take the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals who won a paltry 83 games in the regular season, then went on a blazing-hot run to capture a World Series title.

First, a baseline needs to be established (and not obstructed) for what goes as “better pitching” or “better hitting.” The Boston Red Sox averaged 5.3 runs per game during the season and the Cardinals averaged 4.8 – therefore it would stand to reason that any significant deviation increase in runs during a game could be considered good hitting, while the likewise corresponds with decrease and good pitching.

The Cardinals were dominated in Game 1 with Ace Adam Wainwright on the bump as he gave up five runs, three unearned, over five innings. It was as bad a defensive performance as any in recent memory, but St. Louis pitching took the large of the blame as they were pounded for 8 runs in as many innings. However, it wasn’t the juggernaut offense of the Red Sox that put the game out of the proverbial reach for the Cardinals, it was Jon Lester. Yes, St. Louis struggled against lefties (they were 21-27 this season), but lefty Lester dominated the game in his own right, going 7.2 while allowing a mere six base-runners.  The Cardinals sole run didn’t even come until the ninth when Matt Holliday hit a homer off of Ryan Dempster – not Boston’s crème de la crème in the bullpen.   Boston held St. Louis under their average of runs per game during the season with phenomenal pitching and won the game, simple.

Game 2, a 4-2 St. Louis win, provided no contradiction. Rookie Michael Wacha gave up only two runs over his six innings of work while fanning six. Craig Breslow’s abysmal seventh inning appearance gave St. Louis three runs and the win. The Cardinals scored their average runs, but the pitching limited a potent Sox offense and they got the win.

ObstructionGate came in Game 3, which was incredibly entertaining for couch-managers as they second-guess John Farrell more than a wife second-guesses a husband. The game, which ended in a 5-4 Cardinals victory, was right at the mean for both teams in terms of runs per game. The numbers suggest a close, hotly-contested affair the actual game followed suit.

Clay Bucholz tired early on in Game 4, but relievers Felix Doubront and – surprise! – John Lackey kept St. Louis bats KO’d as the Sox hung on to win 4-2. It wasn’t to say Cardinals pitching was bad, in fact they only made one mistake: to Jonny Gomes on his three-run shot which would end up being the deciding hit. However, once again Boston kept St. Louis below average and managed to get to their average to get the W. DISCLAIMER: There’s no stat about walk-off pick-offs, but I guess that Boston stayed below average and St. Louis went above average (sorry, Kolten Wong).

Jon Lester returned in Game 5, a rebel with a cause this time, to snap the St. Louis offense. He again threw 7.2 innings, allowed only four hits, gave up no walks, and one run. All on 91 pitches. With that ridiculous efficiency, Lester out-dueled Adam Wainwright for a second time. Though the Sox offense had a tougher time than Game 1 against Wainwright, they still came away with the win. They pulled out the victory as a direct result of Lester limiting the dangerous Cardinals lineup as he ensured that they didn’t reach their average. This game was interesting because, in the 3-1 Boston win, neither team reached their average. Since the Boston offense couldn’t generate enough output to reach that benchmark, the Sox pitching knew they needed to lock-down, which they did. Say Lester came out flat and he gets knocked for a couple of base-hits, one of which is for extra-bases, the game is tied, or even in St. Louis favor; that scenario isn’t too difficult to imagine. However, Lester loaded up and willed his team to the win – through pitching.

It seemed that destiny picked the Sox as its child and pampered Boston to no end in Game 6. Shane Victorino continued his deluge of power as he banged one off the monster for a triple with three runs. The thrilling offense swiped the show, but the Sox received another phenomenal outing from John Lackey, he of the 6.2 innings and only one run. The 6-1 World Series-clincher was artwork as Lackey silenced all doubters in the stands and bats in the batter’s box for St. Louis.

Throughout the Series, Boston pitching limited St. Louis’ offense to two or fewer runs in five of six games. Thrice they only managed a single run. That’s lower than their runs per game average throughout the year and that’s with their clutch hitters like David Freese and Carlos Beltran at the dish in key moments.

Often, World Series play out in a similar fashion (when it comes to runs per game).  The 2010 and 2012 San Francisco Giants and 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks present a facsimile set of cases.

So while the Red Sox used their offense, the best in baseball, to get to the biggest moments, when the moments mattered most it was pitching that became the key contributor. Even in the updated game of baseball with lowered pitching mounds and (allegedly) juiced hitters, pitching still matters. It still wins championships.


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