What would happen if organizations focused all its resources into cultivating a team that is strong in only one position? There was an interesting question on the Baseball Prospectus podcast, Effectively Wild. The question used Ray Searage, pitching coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates, as its example. Anyone who has followed the Pirates in recent years knows how Searage has taken on reclamation projects in recent years in order to stabilize organizational success in a small market area.
The Pirates don’t go out and spend $20 million a year on a pitcher. They don’t have the funding and that’s not what they’re about. But that isn’t a bad thing. For starters, I can’t count how many times bigger market teams have dished out massive contracts to star pitchers that just haven’t worked out, for whatever reason. Maybe the pitcher’s success hinged on a pitching coach, and now he’s working with someone else and his mechanics are faltering. Maybe the change of scenery is negatively impacting him, or he’s having trouble adjusting. There’s plenty of reasons why a pitcher might begin to falter. After all, they’re the most sensitive players on the field, often in terms of physicality and mental stability.
In the 2016 season, the Pirates have the 25th lowest payroll in all of baseball. They’re only ahead of five teams, all of whom are in the cellars in their division (except maybe the Marlins, who still aren’t all that good). It was much of the same story last year for the Pirates, finishing 23rd in payroll. But that certainly didn’t impact them: they finished 98-64 and would’ve won any other division in baseball, except that they were in the NL Central with the Cardinals who were pitching out of their minds all season. Ultimately, the Pirates finished the season with a 3.21 ERA, which was second in all of baseball, second to only St. Louis.
The best starter for Pittsburgh was Gerrit Cole, but everyone contributed in one of the Pirates’ best seasons in a long time (they were ultimately ousted by Arrieta and the Cubs in the Wild Card game). If you don’t follow the Pirates, a lot of the guys that were on the staff last year aren’t as well-known, except for the veterans AJ Burnett and Francisco Liriano.
Burnett was slated as a reclamation project. AJ had dreadful seasons from 2008 to 2012 before signing in Pittsburgh, and then suddenly became productive, posting an ERA under 4 every season in Pittsburgh (but there was one season where he struggled in Philadelphia, but of course Searage wasn’t there, so it’s no wonder he didn’t have success). Liriano was another successful project until he got in his head in 2016 and was shipped off to Toronto (again, that sensitive pitcher psyche coming into play). Liriano had plenty of seasons with an ERA over 5 until coming to Pittsburgh and working with Searage.
So, now that the question has an adequate preface, what would happen if an organization invested all of its assets into one position, like a pitcher? Pitching is instrumental in having a good team because they are so heavily used. After all, they’re on the mound half the game. So the perfect place to start would be in Pittsburgh with the Pirates and pitching coach (and seemingly pitching guru) Ray Searage. Disclaimer: the Pirates staff has struggled mightily in the 2016 season, but let’s brush that aside for the sake of speculation and entertainment.
The situation would be as follows: suppose the Pirates essentially purge their minor league position player system in order to stock up on pitching. The question is, “if they stock up on the best pitching they can, while continually producing a lackluster offense, could they be successful? Of course, to even consider this proposition, you’d likely need a tremendous pitching coach. Otherwise, you’ll probably just be hurting the organization.
Firstly, let’s say the Pirates (they will be the continued example throughout the analysis) trade their top prospects in the minor leagues that play every position except pitcher. This way they can pick up pitching prospects and begin to really load up at that position (which is similar to what they do now, but not quite to this extent). Once these guys start getting groomed and being called up to the big leagues, along with the average position players around them, and the rent-a-player veterans that’ll play a year or two for the club, will they be able to pitch so well that their lack of offense doesn’t matter all that much? Given the amount of pitching ability that the hypothetical team would definitely have, it should probably be assumed that the staff will finish with an ERA under 3.00, and perhaps even better. With that said, there aren’t any teams to compare an ERA under, say, 2.00, because it’s never been done, but it might be possible under the construct that is a pitching loaded team, although that may take too much team cohesiveness and all pitchers performing to their respective capabilities.
We’ll start with the 1975 Los Angeles Dodgers. In a year where the Dodgers were the only team to finish with a team ERA under 3.00, which was 2.92, they found themselves at 88-74, which was good for second in the National League West. That’s not a mark that will yield a division champion now (most likely), and it wasn’t then, either. To be fair, the Reds finished first in the West that year, going 108-54. Certainly, a mark of 14 games over .500 is respectable, but would it be good enough to make the playoffs even as a Wild Card?
Well, let’s look how teams have faired with that record in the last 15 years. Since 2000, teams with that or a lesser record have made the playoffs as a wild card team only 17.5% of the time. Moreover, during that same stretch, teams have won their division only 11.5% of the time, which isn’t exactly a high rate of success.
In 1975, Los Angeles allowed fewer runs than any other team in baseball (534), 3rd best in shutouts (18), allowing the fewest runs per game (3.30), used some of the fewest pitchers in the season (14), gave up the fewest hits (1,215), issued the fewest walks (448), 4th most in strikeouts (894), 1st in FIP (3.26), and 1st in WHIP (1.132).
On the flip side of the ball, they scored below the average in the league at runs scored, finishing 18th (648), 18th hits (1,355), 20th in batting average (.248), 15th in OBP (.325), 17th in SLG (.365), 16th in OPS (.690), while leaving the 9th most runners on base (1,208), and lastly, finishing 18th in runs per game (4.0). Keep in mind that this is at a time where there were only 24 teams in baseball, making the Dodgers offense even worse compared to everyone else than how it initially seems.
When regarding the aforementioned information, given the output of the pitching, and the lack of output from the offense, would it be worth it to build a juggernaut in pitching, while letting the offense suffer? It would have to be assumed that the pitching would be a little bit better, while the offense would be a little bit worse. This would likely even everything out to be roughly the same as this example. Of course, there are a lot of great pitching teams with bad, or less than average, offenses with varying records. For example, the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals finished the season with a 100-62 record, winning the National League Central before losing to the Cubs in the division series.
It’s hard to build the perfect team, but it should probably still be assumed that a balanced team will perform the best. I can’t really find any reasons why a pitching heavy team would perform better than a balanced team. For example, even if your pitching is the best in the league and dominates teams, the odds are you aren’t going to have five Clayton Kershaw’s. Because of that, you’re going to need a pretty good bullpen. Regardless of the talent you have to trade away, or the money you have to sign, you probably won’t find 12 or 13 great pitchers to form a staff. That means, no matter how hard you try, there will be a couple of weak spots. This means that, and even if you are somehow able to stock up completely on All-Star caliber pitching, they’ll be so strained and so overworked because of the poor offense that they’ll begin to falter down the stretch. It’s still beyond me how the Cardinals kept their pitching in such top and efficient condition last year.
Although it would deviate from the intended purpose of the article, the most obvious solution would be to draft almost exclusively pitchers. Then when the pitchers reach the bigs and are ready to compete, send some of them elsewhere in exchange for the hitting that is needed to fill the holes within the roster.
I like to think of the Cubs of doing something similar, but in reverse. With the Cubs, they feel as though the best strategy is to draft primarily highly touted position players. Then once those guys are on the cusp of breaking into the big leagues in Chicago, they are rerouted somewhere else so the Cubs can pick up the pitchers they need, thus reaching a baseball equilibrium within the organization. That is one of the reasons they’re seeing such immense success in the 2016 season.
There are some teams that are following a fairly similar strategy. The Tampa Bay Rays are doing something that can be considered to be within a similar realm because they have stocked up on knuckleballers, which is such a rare commodity in baseball, so it may be able to pay big dividends if the pitchers pan out correctly. There have only ever been 29 knuckleball pitchers in the history of baseball, some of whom have ended up posting very respectable career numbers.
To conclude, it probably wouldn’t be wise to put all of your eggs in one basket, so to say, because no matter how stacked a team is in pitching, the lack of offensive production will likely eventually catch up with them. Because of this, they may end up barely squeaking into the playoffs, or simply being a very average team. They’ll likely not be bad, but they’ll likely seldom be the best. Therefore, it’s probably best to follow a strategy of either balancing draft picks, as it’s been done for so long, or stocking up on either position players or pitchers, and then trading away the surplus down the road for players that you know are on the verge of having successful careers.
The following chart displays team wins of every team with an ERA under 3.00 since 1970. Note: the two years where the teams finished the season with 61 wins (2.66 ERA) and 59 wins (2.90) occurred in 1981, the year in which a players’ strike took place.
Source(s): Baseball-Reference, Spotrac, Sporting Charts, Baseball Prospectus/Effectively Wild