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We've all heard the old addage that defense wins championships.  It's mostly a football saying, but similar cliches abound in all major sports.  Often, fans hold these assertions to be true with really paying attention to the evidence, or lack thereof.

But what if we took a look at the numbers?  Would such bold pronouncements withstand exposure to the facts?  Our old buddy Ram touched on the subject in this NMI blog, but since we're waist-deep in baseball during these hot July days, I thought I'd take a look at the World Series.

What do the champs of MLB have in common?  In other words, what wins the World Series?

Now I admit that this is only a crude analysis and is far from exhaustive.  But even a glance can be instructive when you're looking in the right direction.  With compliments to, let's explore some facts.

I looked at every World Series winning team since the 1994 strike-shortened season to try to determine common threads.  Why did these teams win while others fell short?  I also limited my analysis to regular season numbers to make sure I was comparing the champs with all of their competition.

Warning: Clearly, the playoffs are a different animal, and there may be numerous factors that affect a team's playoff perfomance or make it different from what the same team achieved during the regular season.  Just as clearly, there are exceptions to every take all of this with a grain of salt.

That said, I started with offense. 

Many fans claim that "pitching may win short series, but offense gets you to the playoffs".  I have heard variations on this theme from a lot of sources.

If true, then World Series champs should, generally speaking, be offensive powerhouses.  Right?

Looking as the last 13 World Series winners (1195-2007):


- No WS winner since 1995 has led its league in home runs 
- WS winners were in the TOP 5 of their league only FIVE TIMES in 13 years
- Only ONE WS winner has led its league in slugging %
- WS winners were outside their league's TOP 5 in slugging SEVEN TIMES

 Comment: Hitting home runs is great, but being a power team won't necessarily get you a ring.  But there's more to hitting than just home runs, right?


- Only ONE WS-winning team led its league in hits
- WS winners were outside of their league's TOP 5 in hits SEVEN TIMES
- WS winners were outside of their league's TOP 10 in hits THREE TIMES

- OBP appears to be slightly more important than hits alone (not surprisingly)
- 10 of the last 13 WS winners were in their league's TOP 5 in OBP

Comment: Keep in mind, we're talking 14-16 team leagues here.  Getting a lot of hits does not gurantee a championship.  OBP means more than hits alone.  But getting on base are only so important.  What matters more are runs, right?


- Only TWO WS-winning teams have led their league in runs scored
- WS winners were outside of the league's TOP 5 in runs scored SEVEN TIMES
- WS winners were in the bottom half of their league in runs scored FIVE TIMES

Comment:  It doesn't appear that scoring a lot of runs is critical to winning the World Series either.  Interesting...


- It appears that avoiding strikeouts is correlating with winning rings.  Of these 13 winners, 11 were at or near the bottom of the league in terms of the overall number of strikeouts.  In other words, the winning teams were generally good at making contact.  The 2004 Red Sox were the notable exception.


Winning teams generally (1) made contact and (2) got on base.  Other than that, there doesn't seem to be a proven offensive formula.  You don't necessarily need a lot of power, a lot of hits, or a lot of runs to win a ring...


What do we find when we look at pitching?
  Oops.  I mean...

The common belief is that good pitching helps you win in the playoffs, but how important is it in the regular season?  Do WS-winning teams have tendencies when it comes to who's on the mound?

In a word...yes.

Again, looking as the last 13 World Series winners (1195-2007):


- SIX winners have led their league in fewest hits allowed
- 11 out of 13 champs were in their league's TOP 3 in fewest hits allowed

Comment: Giving up fewer hits is highly correlated with victory.  As for scoring...


- FOUR WS winners led their league in fewest runs allowed
- 12 of 13 champs were in their league's TOP 5 in fewest runs allowed. The other team ranked 6th.
- 10 of 13 champs were in their league's TOP 5 in ERA

Comment: This makes complete sense.  Not allowing runs means more wins.  It's interesting that not allowing runs seems to be more critical to winning titles than scoring runs.


- While only ONE WS winner led its league in Ks, 11 out 13 winners were in their league's TOP 5.  This suggests that limiting your opponents' contact is a key to victory.


As we might expect, keeping the other team off the basepaths and off the scoreboard helps turn teams into title-winners.  What I did not expect is much more related to winning pitching is than hitting.  Based on these numbers, having a good pitching staff during the regular season is more closely tied to winning a title than is having a good offense.

That surprised me.


So what does all this mean?  What can we conclude from examining this admittedly cursory analysis and this admittedly small sample of champions?


It appears that what matters most offensively is getting on base consistently and avoiding high strikeout totals.  This makes sense.  By having more contact and more baserunners, you're putting yourself in a position to win.  It's interesting though that runs don't correlate more directly with winning the World Series. 

Perhaps it means that you don't need to score the most, but rather you need to score at the most opportune times.  That's what contact and OBP will do for you.

And it appears that pitching does matter, even in the regular season.  Winners tend to have a quality staff that limits the number of hits and runs it allows. 


Overall, what you give up appears to matter more than what you get.  Make contact, get on base and score all you want...but keeping the other guys from doing the same seems to be a quicker ticket to a title.

I wonder if teams will take note...



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