Does Pitching Win Championships?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

One final thing I wanted to investigate before the postseason is the simple adage: pitching wins championships. It’s a phrase frequently repeated, and one I felt particularly important for Cleveland before we start the 2020 postseason. This will be the final analysis of World Series winners I will manage to complete prior to the playoffs beginning on September 29th.

I was unsure what to make of this: my gut feeling was to believe pitching matters as much or more than hitting. After all, the best offense in the American League all decade in the ‘90s lost both the World Series they played in, and I will never forget Josh Beckett manhandling the Indians in 2007. Then again, sometimes great pitchers fail. Corey Kluber dragged us to a foot away from a ring in 2016, but both Houston and New York clobbered him the next two seasons. Sabathia pitched poorly in ‘07 and ‘08 (before taking home ALCS MVP honors in ‘09). Clayton Kershaw’s postseason struggles are legend.

To test this I took the runs scored rank, and the runs allowed rank, for both the pennant winner and the World Series winner for each year starting in 1995. This is not a perfect analysis as it does not account for numerous factors including ballpark effects, strength of opponents, and luck. However, this simple analysis is close enough to reality to glean some information. You may find the full data set, per usual, here.

Overall, the sample showed a slight, but consistent, bias towards defense over offense. The average World Series winner finished slightly better than 4th in runs allowed, while finishing slightly worse than 4th in runs scored; the bias is mildly more lopsided for the losing team. Overall, the worst offensive team to win the World Series is a tie between the 1995 Atlanta Braves, the 1996 New York Yankees, the 2005 Chicago White Sox, and the 2010 San Francisco Giants. No team has ever finished worse than 11th in runs scored in their league (the 2005 Houston Astros). No team won a pennant with a pitching staff worse than 9th (the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals).

A couple interesting tidbits:

  • Four teams led the league in both runs scored, and runs allowed, and won a pennant: the 1995 Cleveland Indians, the 1998 New York Yankees, the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals, and the 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers. They were 50/50 on winning the World Series.

  • The worst team (in average ranking) to win the World Series was (surprise!) the Florida Marlins. In 2003 they averaged a ranking of 7th: 8th in runs scored, 6th in runs allowed.

  • The biggest difference in team quality (based solely on these metrics) in a World Series came in 1998: the Yankees led the league in run scoring and run prevention, the Padres finished 8th and 3rd respectively.

  • The least accomplished World Series matchup (i.e. the teams ranked furthest from first in both runs scored and runs allowed) came in 2005, when both the White Sox and Astros averaged 6th place. Neither team scored many runs, but both were accomplished pitching staffs


Overall there are certainly multiple ways to win a championship; examples of excellent hitting teams with mediocre pitching exist (see the 2011 Cardinals, 2013 Red Sox, & 2009 Yankees). There are also plenty of teams with middling offense, but good pitching as well (1995 Braves, 1996 Yankees, 2005 White Sox, & the 2010 Giants). The most important lesson perhaps being: there are more examples of teams with great pitching and mediocre hitting, than vice-versa, who win the World Series (or a pennant for that matter).

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