Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Good Pitching vs. Hitting: Why I've Been Touting Pitching

I've been talking about the benefits of having an excellent rotation for a while now, but I don't think that people in general get it yet, why it's better to have dominant pitchers vs. dominant hitters, on your team. And I'm talking to all you people out there who ever advocated we trade Cain or Lincecum for a good hitter. I am also talking to all you people out there talking about trading Bumgarner for a good hitter.

The last two games give a good microcosm of what I'm talking about.

When Pitchers Dominate

The other day, Lincecum was absolutely dominant. Not only did he 2-hit the Cards, he struck out 8 and walked none, while only throwing 95 pitches. He's becoming what I've been hoping that he become, a Big Daddy Rick Rueschel-type pitcher, who can strike out a lot if need be, but keeps the pitch count low by getting hitters to swing early in the count at lousy pitches.

And it's not just for one game, as I've been showing in my PQS study, Lincecum can dominate 70-80% of the time, when merely good starters dominate around 40% of the time. And Cain is an elite pitcher in that he dominates 50%+ of the time. Only Lincecum can make him look ordinary. But Cain has raised things a notch this season, reducing his number of disaster starts, and it showed with his record between losses: he was 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA in nine starts between losses. If you have a rotation of them, then a team like the Giants can dominate any short series.

When Hitters Dominate

Albert Pujols was dominating yesterday. Two homers, three RBI, a walk, 2-for-3. However, Johnson was able to dominate the rest of the batters - 5 for 28, no HR - and came away with the win, despite sub-par pitching (luckily his relief, particularly Jeremey Affeldt, the star acquisition of the off-season, was sterling, again).

We saw this over and over again during the Barry Bonds era. Bonds would be totally on in a game, but many others were not, and we would end up losing, games, series, seasons. Having a dominant hitter is no panacea for an offense. And, frankly, for all the talk about how hitters contribute in every game, they only truly dominate in a game much, much less, probably on par with the number of times a starting pitcher contributes a dominant starting performance.

Improving the Odds

What people don't always get is the series sensitivity to the outcome of the first game of the series. If you have a pitcher like Lincecum who can dominate almost every game he pitches, you can almost put a W in your pocket for the first game. Suddenly it goes from a winning 3 out of 5 series to a winning 2 out of 4 series. Might not seem a lot, but that is huge. Assuming that the two teams are roughly equal (and most are in the playoffs), you go from 50% chance of winning a series to 60%.

If you have two strong pitchers in your rotation (which I have been advocating for a while now, in the mode of Johnson and Schilling for the D-backs in their World Series), if you win the first two games, now you have 75% chance of winning the series. And I didn't even account for Lincecum pitching again in the 5th game, which increases the odds to roughly 86%.

A similar process happens for a 7 game series. Clearly, having a dominating pitcher greatly increases the odds of winning any series and having two of them in the rotation, that much more so.

Add in a third one (Johnson when he is on for us) and again, the odds increase greatly.

Bullpen is Key Too

As Tom Tippett's studies at Diamond Mind in the early to mid-2000's showed, having a strong bullpen is key to being a playoff team. In today's environment of almost no starters completing games, that makes a strong bullpen key to improving your odds in short series. Because, no matter how dominating a starter can be, unless he can finish what he starts, the bullpen will have to consistently be strong enough to save the game, either the win in relief for the starter or keep the score close so that the offense can hopefully battle back and come from behind.

I think that is what will be an ace in the hole for the Giants should they make the World Series, most likely Lincecum will start games 1 and 4 and thus probably not pitch game 7 (if necessary). However, given his arm, he can probably come in, just like Randy Johnson did in his World Series and give some good innings in relief.

Here I advocate, much like the Twin Ace at the top of the rotation strategy, a Twin Closer in the bullpen, though one would be the closer and the other his regular set-up guy. I think we have one with Wilson as the closer and Affeldt as the set-up man. Often, the critical batter is not coming up in the 9th inning, but earlier, in the 7th and 8th, with men on base after the starter (or another reliever) falters and put men on base, threatening to score. If you have two closers, you have one to take care of the early fires, one to shut down the last inning fires.

In fact, we might even have more because both Romo and Valdez has been lights out for us in relief so far. This is what has been helping us win games, having a relief corp that can shut down the other team for 3-4 innings at the end of the game. The D-gers had a strong bullpen like this last season (and this one thus far, amazingly, given their minor league performances) and it helped them greatly.

Pre-Season Worries Overblown

And most Giants fans were worried in the pre-season about the Giants lack of offense. They are still just averaging only around 4 runs per game (4.09 to be exact), but with their superlative pitching, they have been winning. With the nice bump up in offense in June - they averaged 4.37 runs scored per game, which is about what was predicted for them in the pre-season based on the individual players' projections - they have been winning hand over fist, 17-10 in June, the best winning month since September 2004, their last winning season. At 7 wins above .500, it is the best for the period since September 2004, and not only that, the second best was only 2 wins above .500, achieved in four different months; mostly the Giants were at .500 or much below .500 during that roughly 5 year period since then.

And I'm not saying that the offense can't be improved. It can. What I've been more importantly saying is that with our good pitching, even our poor offense can win a good number of games. And that's the most important stat of all, not your runs scored per game, not the poor number of HR you have hit, it is the W's that you put in the win column. In that regard, the Giants offense has been good enough.

Effect on Series

Since I'm talking about series, I thought I would look at each starter.

The Giants, in series where Lincecum started one game, has been 9-4-2, and is in good shape to win an 10th, against the Cards.

Johnson: 10-3-2
Cain: 10-4-1
Zito: 7-6-2
Sanchez: 7-4-2

Sanchez benefitted from having Lincecum following him, I think.

5 comments:

  1. By the same token, the Dodgers are proving just the opposite......that dominant hitting and mediocre pitching can be combined for the best record in baseball.

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  2. Nice explanation of the potency of strong pitching. I've agreed with you completely on this since the start of the season. Another good post, Martin.

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  3. I agree on the necessity for a good bullpen...which is why we should get rid of Bob Howry immediately. I can't stand this guy. He always seems to be getting knocked around. When does Joe Martinez figure to come back because Howry kills me.

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  4. Mediocre pitching? Are we talking about the same team? The D-gers have a very good pitching staff, their overall ERA is 3.55, which is excellent, and most of their starters have ERAs under 4.00, which is great, and their bullpen is very good too. I can admit when they have a good team (I'm not happy about it, but sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the other team).

    In any case, you are talking about a team performance when you are talking about the D-gers. Which means that you missed the point of this post. Totally.

    My point is about how much a particular player can influence one game, and how that influence can or can't affect one game in any series, but particularly a playoff series.

    When you have a dominating pitcher, you effectively increased your odds of winning any one particular start. Once you have that, you effectively increased the odds of winning any series he pitches in, particularly if you lead off with him.

    You could have the best hitter in history, but he cannot win any particular game by himself, offensively, though he can do it occassionally. The thing is that a hitter relies a lot on the other hitters around him having to perform too, both for him to drive in runs, and for them to drive him in. The thing is, he's not a dominant factor in every game that he plays in.

    But when you have a good to great pitcher, he greatly influences the outcome of a large percentage of the games he is starting. Even mediocre pitchers dominates 30% of their starts, and good ones 40%. The best dominates 50% of their starts and the elite, like Lincecum, Johan, can dominate 70%+. In fact, Lincecum has been dominating 80% of his starts for a while now. And Cain has boosted his dominating starts from 50's to 60% this season.

    Another key thing that good pitchers do, in particular, is not just dominating games, but more importantly, avoiding the disaster starts. Obviously, a pitcher like Lincecum at 80% is limiting the number of disaster starts by definition, but one of the key things that Cain has done this season is not increasing his dominating starts but rather decreasing greatly his disaster starts. He is only at 10% this season, which only the best can do, whereas he had been at around 20% in previous years.

    It is those disaster starts that really kills your ERA plus, more importantly, kill the chances of your team winning any particular game. By avoiding disaster starts, you give your team a chance to hold the fort with the bullpen and perhaps win the game with a rally with the offense. That also improves the chances of your team winning any particular short series.

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  5. I have to admit that Howry is not as great as he once was. His walk total is already almost as high as any season for the past 6 seasons, and he's pitched maybe only 40% of the innings he had in prior years. More importantly, he's striking out much less.

    Still, it's not like he's been totally bad. An overall ERA of 3.86 is still pretty good. And he has stranded 3 of the 4 baserunners that he has inherited, a good 75% rate. Meanwhile, Merkin Valdez has allowed 10 of his inherited baserunners to score, a dismal 33% strand rate.

    In addition, after some early season hiccups, Howry has been very good in his last 18 games pitched, which spans the last 2 months. 3.20 ERA, WHIP of roughly 1.1. Still walking slightly too much but basically OK, but the big problem has been his inability to strike out batters, with only 8 K's in 19.2 IP. But opposing batters have been only hitting .189/.259/.243/.503 during that 2 month period.

    So Howry has been actually pretty good lately, he just has a big blow up every once in a while. I would rather he do that, than continually give up 1 run here and there.

    I like Martinez, but he's an unproven pitcher, never really that good in the minors to warrant top prospect status, so he's going to have to prove it to me in the majors before I pick him over Howry. But that's the chicken and egg thing.

    Still, since we are currently battling for a playoff spot, I would rather we keep someone with playoff experience than one without not just playoff experience, but major league experience. The bullpen has been fine without Martinez and Howry has been good after early glitches. I wouldn't change anything now.

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