This time of year, the pundits usually love to look at the playoffs and make great pronouncements about how championships are won. Of course, the San Francisco Giants happened to fulfill the stereotype last season. Pitching wins championships. That's what they all say. It must be true.
In the movie The Replacements, Gene Hackman tried to recruit Keanu Reeves to be his quarterback. He asked him a simple question: do you know what separates the winners from the losers? Reeves's character gave the perfect answer: the scoreboard.
In this postseason, we are learning that offense can win championships. Both the Rangers and the Brewers got the upper-hand in the league championship series by outscoring their competition. The Cardinals eliminated the team with the best rotation in baseball. Why? The Phillies offense wasn't good enough.
Now, of course, this doesn't mean we get to turn around and say that pitching doesn't matter. Pitching always matters. Yet, to focus on pitching ignores an important element in the whole exchange. We can argue about how to grade fielding until the cows come home, but you cannot ignore defense efficiency rating.
Defense efficiency rating simply says what percentage of balls in play (not home runs) end up becoming outs. You cannot argue with the results. They are what they are. When we look at the final standings in DER we see some pretty interesting results. Below you will see the eight-playoff teams and were they finished in DER.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .DER/Rank
Tampa Bay. . . . . . .724/1st
Who do you think will win the World Series?
Texas. . . . . . . . . ...704/3rd
Philadelphia. . . . . ..703/6th
Arizona. . . . . . . . ..701/7th
Milwaukee. . . . . . . .694/15th
Detroit. . . . . . . . . . .693/16th
New York. . . . . . . . .688/20st
St. Louis. . . . . . . . ..687/21st
Detroit and Milwaukee are right on the league average. That leaves New York and St. Louis as outliers. The Cardinals had one of the worst defenses in baseball before the deadline and not coincidentally went on their run in August and September. The Yankees bludgeoned people to death during the regular season and couldn't continue once October came.
Half of the playoff teams are in the top seven in baseball. I'd say there is a pretty strong correlation there. When fielders get to more balls there are fewer base runners and fewer runs. It's amazing how even a solid pitcher can look really good with a great defense behind him.
Naturally, when people ask how you are able to get great offensive players that are also exceptional fielders, the answer is simple. You develop them. When you look at the teams that are still in the hunt, they are largely homegrown. Sure, you can find a significant free agent here and there, but the important guys were either drafted or acquired when they were young.
So, don't stop drafting good pitching prospects, but don't overdo it. You need hitting and you need fielding too. The truth is that you win baseball games in the playoffs the same way you win in the regular season. You score more runs than the other team. There is more than one way to do that.