If you google for the phrase “pitching and defense wins championships”, the search engine returns 28.8 million results. Even if you put the statement in quotes, requiring that the exact phrase be used, there are still 99,000 pages where Google will show you that statement being written on the web.
Not all of those pages are advocating on behalf of that statement’s truth, but some of them certainly are. And, perhaps most recently, this sentiment was argued for on MLB Now, when White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson lectured Brian Kenny about the merits of statistical analysis in baseball. In that conversation, Harrelson said, among other things:
“This game is a game of defense, pitching being the first line of defense.”
“It’s not scoring runs, it’s keeping the other team from scoring more runs than you do. You do that with pitching and defense.
“The performance is the (win). That’s the performance, the (wins). And again, you do that with pitching and defense.”
“Brian, pitching and defense. That’s the name of this game.”
Hawk Harrleson is the broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox. The Chicago White Sox currently have the second best ERA in the American League at 3.40, trailing only the Rangers, who have a 3.39 ERA. The White Sox are doing this in one of the best ballparks for offense in baseball. It is fair to say that the White Sox — the team Harrelson watches every day — have been pretty great at pitching and defense.
The Chicago White Sox are 15-20 and currently sit in last place in the American League Central. Not only are the White Sox behind Detroit and Kansas City, who also have been stingy in allowing runs this year, they’re also behind the Indians (3.96 ERA) and the Twins (4.25 ERA), who aren’t so great at keeping opponents off the board, because both of those teams — along with every other team in the AL — are hitting much better than the White Sox are hitting.
Despite playing in that hitter friendly ballpark, the White Sox currently rate 15th out of 15 AL teams in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. At 3.4 runs per game, the White Sox rank dead last in the AL in run scoring. This is the team Hawk Harrelson has watched play all year long. Great pitching and defense, terrible hitting. It’s not equaling wins.
If you’re curious, here are a few correlations (in absolute value, so that everything is listed as a positive) between various numbers and a team’s current winning percentage.
Runs scored per game: .62
Runs allowed per game: .74
WAR per game: .84
Run differential per game: .93
Pitching and defense are great. Offense is great. Hawk said one true thing in that appearance on MLB Network, as the goal isn’t to score runs, but it’s to outscore your opponent. I wonder if, watching his team play every day, he would still argue that you can simply outscore your opponent with pitching and defense.
This wasn’t intended as any kind of in depth analysis, since the issue has already been studied many times and the conclusion is always the same; run scoring and run prevention are roughly of equal importance. There’s some evidence that teams who specialize in run prevention might do slightly better than teams who specialize in run scoring, but the furthest you can push the split is in the 52/48 range in favor of run prevention. By and large, a run is a run is a run.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.