In the ever-evolving biosphere of Major League Baseball, pace of play rules are being established, Cuban sensations are taking the MLB by storm, and sabermetrics are overriding front offices across the league. Yet, through all of this change to modernize baseball and catapult the league into a new era, some fundamental concepts of America’s pastime will always remain intact.
Shocking revelation, right? Good pitching wins championships. If anyone needs evidence to prove this claim, just take a look at the $440+ million that Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields earned on the free agent market this past winter. And there’s a reason why front-end starting pitchers reap the benefits of free agency more than the majority of positional players who hit the open market; pitchers have a stronger overall impact in this day and age than positional players. Both Shields and Lester have appeared in the World Series in 2014 and 2013, respectively, while Scherzer helped lead the Detroit Tigers to four straight playoff appearances.
Some might be asking why I took the time to write about a topic that seems so incredibly obvious. It’s Baseball 101: big game pitchers win championships. Unfortunately, teams throughout the league are beginning to downplay having a bona fide number one starting pitcher, in favor of inning eating, middle of the rotation, high-upside pitchers. Teams such as the Baltimore Orioles have initiated this philosophy and have generally seen favorable results – in the regular season.
Led by Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez, and Kevin Gausman, the Orioles managed to win 96 games and the American League East division last season. None of the aforementioned pitchers qualifies as a number one or an “ace,” but they performed admirably throughout the regular season and had a terrific 2014. And of course, you can’t disregard scoring the 8th most runs in the MLB and having a terrific bullpen.
But when it came down to the World Series champion, San Francisco Giants, they had a number one starter. That’s not a knock on Baltimore’s impressive season, but it brings up my general point that teams that survive deep into the playoffs have an anchor at the top of their rotation. Those who don’t eventually hit the proverbial brick wall. Not every team necessarily must have someone of the “ace” caliber such as Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner, but World Series championship teams needs at least one veteran at the helm of the starting rotation. You can’t put together a rotation with five number three pitchers and expect a championship, no matter what the rest of the team looks like.
The most recent team to face this controversy is the Boston Red Sox, who will presumably enter the 2015 season without an established number one pitcher after losing the Jon Lester sweepstakes to the Chicago Cubs. Manager John Farrell recently commented on the status of his pitching staff and the controversy of not having a front-end starter, stating wearily that, “I don’t know that every team has what many would just label across baseball as a No. 1 starter…I’m not overly concerned that some might think we don’t have a No. 1. I think we have five No. 1s. The No. 1 for us is going to be the guy that pitches that night.” That’s the answer one would have to expect from a manager, as he has to support his staff in lieu of the losses of both Lester and John Lackey at the Trading Deadline last season. Yet, when Farrell mentions that several other teams don’t have number one starters in the league, he’s correct. Those who don’t aren’t competing for a World Series this year. Every team may not have a Clayton Kershaw, but if a team doesn’t even have a pitcher on the same tier as James Shields, Cole Hamels, or Doug Fister, there is little chance to fight deep into the playoffs, despite possibly having a strong regular season.
I don’t make this conclusion from advanced sabermetrics, as much as I do history of the league as whole. If you look at the past 15 years, every single team had at least one frontline starting pitcher in their prime. And 10 of 15 pitchers who were handed the ball in Game 1 of the past 15 World Series’ for the champion were the team’s recognized top starter.
As displayed by this graph of each champion’s Game 1 starting pitcher, it is not surprising as to why each team hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy (2004 Red Sox also had Pedro Martinez/Curt Schilling, 2003 Marlins had Josh Beckett/Dontrelle Willis, 2005 White Sox had Mark Buehrle). Each team possessed a number one starting pitcher to some degree. As important as offense is, number one pitchers take teams the distance. Without Madison Bumgarner in 2014, the San Francisco Giants arguably do not defeat the Royals. In 2013, theBoston Red Sox arguably do not defeat the St. Louis Cardinals without Jon Lester. And so on, and so on…
It can be debated that teams such as the Red Sox, Royals, and Orioles can have a very successful 2015 campaign. They can score runs in unique ways and their pitching depth is formidable enough to get them to 85 or so wins, but their chances to win a World Series as currently constituted are awfully slim. When the league’s best rotations and lineups step forward in October, franchises that lack a dependable postseason starting pitcher are almost certain to fall short of expectations. It is difficult to imagine Clay Buchholz or Wade Miley going toe-to-toe with Adam Wainwright, Madison Bumgarner, or Jordan Zimmerman in October and succeeding. Miracles happen on ocassion, but if a team is definitively trying to win a World Series in 2015, they better make sure they have someone who can carry them late into October. Regular season consistency is possible with an average rotation, but the postseason is an entirely different story. Those who ignore history are ill-fated to repeat it, and there is no exception to this rule in Major League Baseball. Hopefully, this can debunk any theory about how any team can go as far as they want without such a commodity.