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Baseball's Age-Old Debate: Pitching Vs. Hitting

February 15, 2017
It was Connie Mack who allegedly first uttered the phrase "baseball is 75 percent pitching," which many now claim is an understatement. 

Yogi Berra wasn't worried about mathematical balance when he said "baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical," but that declaration doesn't seem any more out of whack these days than the pay structure in Major League Baseball.

Mack is the winningest and losingest manager in history (3,731-3,948), mainly because he was also the owner during most of his 50-plus-year career, so he was speaking from experience when he assessed the value of pitching. Berra, on the other hand, knew a lot about hitting -- and more than a little bit about the mental approach to the game.

Chances are Mack and Berra would be hard-pressed to explain the modern approach to the game, which is dominated by strikeouts and home runs. They probably would give in to the theory "good pitching will beat good hitting," the universally accepted standard. Although pitcher Bob Veale threw in the pertinent addendum "and vice versa" after an ineffective outing in 1966. Leave it to a left-hander to put the subject in perspective.

Six years ago, there was a statistical analysis (just imagine) at the University of Delaware, headed by professor Charles Pavitt, that charted almost a half-century worth of games (1951-1998), and it came to a conclusion drastically different from accepted theory. It determined that winning, or losing, games was determined 45 percent by hitting and 25 percent each for pitching and defense. It also came to the conclusion stolen bases were overrated, and presumably the missing ingredient involved in the other 5 percent was luck.

Obviously, Pavitt's study was in such stark contrast to accepted baseball wisdom that it hasn't carried much weight. At least that's the conclusion we're almost forced to make in light of some recent free-agent signings, and it's weird how much difference a year makes.

One year after first baseman Chris Davis led the American League in home runs (47) and got a seven-year, $161 million contract to re-up with the Orioles, outfielder Mark Trumbo duplicated the feat, but the bidding stopped (and apparently started) at $37.5 million for three years -- a startling difference of almost $10 million per year on average. First baseman Chris Carter led the National League with 41 home runs in 2016 and ended up with a one-year deal from the Yankees for $3.5 million.

Now we understand the trio of aforementioned sluggers is also the strikeout kings of the universe, on average in the vicinity of the 200 mark. But the differences in those salaries are so out of whack it's almost mind-boggling.

Especially when offered in comparison to mediocre (sometimes inferior) pitching. As a for instance, Trumbo's contract is similar in annual dollars but shorter in length than the one the Orioles gave right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez four years ago and only marginally more than the $8.9 million lefty Wade Miley will earn in 2017. 

This might be a chicken-and-the-egg thing because good pitching only works when a team has enough runs to hold a lead, but if those numbers aren't out-of-whack well ... let me give you another one by posing a question.

Who would you rather have on the Orioles' roster this year: Mark Trumbo or lefty Wei Yin Chen?

I mean, if that's not case opened and closed, then I'm more confused than originally believed. Chen was a nice pitcher for four years, capable of going six innings most of the time, logging 190 innings (twice) and giving his team a chance to win. At $15.86 million for four years, he was a bargain. At $80 million over five years, the deal super agent Scott Boras was able to negotiate a year ago with the Marlins, well, as the saying goes, there's some ‘splaining to do.

If pitching is 75 percent of the game, or even more as some claim, then it seems the accepted standard should be beyond mediocrity. Once you get past the super pitchers of the era, the ones making $25 million or more per year, starting pitchers are being asked to go five innings, six maximum, and they are being paid disproportionately. Three earned runs in six innings equates to a 4.50 ERA, reduce the number of innings to five and the ERA works out to 5.40.

A team like the Orioles, with its preponderance of home runs and strikeouts, is vulnerable to good pitching, one reason it is consistently dismissed by the analytics experts. But it is also a team that will win a lot of games if it can hold the opposition to three runs or fewer over the first two-thirds of the game. The equivalent of a 4.50 or 5.40 ERA suddenly looks appealing -- provided, of course, it produces a lead entering the final three or four innings of the game.

Which, of course, is where hitters come into play and where the debate really begins.

With the advent of one-inning specialists, baseball has become a six-inning game. Within that time frame, it seems to me Pavitt's breakout of hitting accounting for 45 percent has some merit. After the seventh inning, there's no debate; pitching is at least 95 percent of the game.

I'll leave it to the experts to figure out the exact percentages (the above formula comes out to less than 50 percent), but while they're at it, I hope they can find a way to explain how a 4.50 ERA is a match for 40-plus home runs.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.

Issue 230: February 2017