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Do the Braves have the pitching? Does it matter?

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Probably not, and probably not.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at New York Mets Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

This post is aimed squarely at one narrative that has cropped up again and again in June, as Atlanta’s bats went the good kind of haywire and the pitching foundered (and floundered). There seems to be some blithe faith in the idea that a team needs pitching to succeed (whatever succeed means), and that “the pitching” (whatever that means) needs to be good enough for a team to meet its goals.

For some of you, this narrative needs no disproving. You’ve either already read the now-half-decade-old Ben Lindbergh Grantland piece, or you grok the general idea without needing it reaffirmed. While this would be a good place in this article to quote some conclusion from it, there’s actually no good place to start — it bodyslams that narrative with restrained glee.

The next step was to see whether, for the purpose of predicting postseason results, every .600 (or .580, or .560, or .540) team is alike, or whether having good starting pitching adds an extra advantage. Russell examined the first three pitchers who started for each team in each series. He also looked at Game 1 starters only. No indicator of the quality of those starters (strikeout rate, walk rate, home run rate, ground ball rate, linear weights) proved to be a significant predictor of a team’s postseason success, after controlling for that club’s regular-season record.

So why doesn’t the quality of a team’s top three starters or its ace register as significant? For one thing, the differences between teams are compressed in the playoffs, relative to the regular season: Teams with terrible staffs don’t make it to October, so the gulf between the best- and worst-pitching playoff teams isn’t as stark as we’re used to seeing during the season’s first six months. Perhaps more importantly, there’s more than one way to win baseball games, and even under an expanded playoff format, teams don’t get to October without doing something well. A team with an inferior pitching staff often makes up for its weakness on the mound by being better on offense.

Honestly, though, just read the whole thing.

For others, this may not be enough. Some folks might look even at the above and say, “Okay, I’m convinced by this evidence, but that’s about aces. What about relievers?” And then you can refer to efforts to try to gauge postseason success like the ill-fated Nate Silver Secret Sauce saga, described as such only because, well, overfitting ended up being a thing. (For those of you not inclined to click links, the Secret Sauce for predicting playoff success, which focused on strikeout rates, good closers, and good defenses was useful in retrospect, but was no better than random guessing or coin flips at predicting future playoff successes, or even ones in the recent past relative to the publication of the Secret Sauce algorithm.)

I’m not going to replicate any of the above, I’m going to do something different. But first, let’s establish who the Braves are and could be, at least at this point in time.

Through the season’s calendarial midpoint, here are some Braves team ranks:

  • Non-pitcher wRC+: fifth overall
  • Non-pitcher total offense: fourth overall (flip with the Yankees due to baserunning)
  • Offensive xwOBA (including pitchers): second overall

  • Total pitching fWAR: 23rd overall
  • Rotation / bullpen fWAR: 21st overall / 22nd overall
  • Total pitching RA9-WAR: 17th overall
  • Rotation / bullpen RA9-WAR: 20th overall / 16th overall
  • Bullpen WPA: 14th overall
  • Pitching xwOBA: 16th overall
  • Total pitching FIP- / xFIP-: 20th overall

The point is, there’s a clear dichotomy in play. The hitting: good. The pitching: not-so-good. Even if you squint and starting including the fielding contribution to pitching, the best you get is average. It’s collectively very “ehhhh” as far as guys throwing the ball from the mound are concerned, and it ranges all the way down to “uh oh.”

Before we talk about the playoffs, though, I want to answer one specific question: say nothing changes — can the Braves even make the playoffs with this team composition? The answer: a resounding yes. Yes, they can. Their playoff odds are currently 94 percent. Now, a lot of that isn’t because the Braves have been good (though they have been) but because the rest of the division has faceplanted to various extents. However, the hypothetical question posed isn’t necessarily whether a team can make the playoffs with good hitting and bad pitching, but whether this 2019 Braves team can. It seems pretty likely at this point, even if nothing changes. Not set in stone, of course, but likely. That aside, though, take a gander at the below. I’ve tabulated the relative rank of the team’s pitching (by fWAR) versus its offense (by total offensive runs for non-pitchers, so wRC+ plus baserunning) as well as its overall record.

  • In April, with a great offense and terrible pitching, the Braves were a middling team.
  • In May, with a subpar offense and average pitching, the Braves were a good team.
  • In June, with the best offense and average pitching, the Braves were the best team.

There’s no throughline to be drawn here, unless you want to point out that the Braves have gotten better as their pitching has improved. However, halfway through the season, their pitching is still subpar and the team is a prime contender, so that’s not too convincing. If the Braves simply replicate in July, August, and September what they’ve done so far, they’ll coast into the playoffs with said subpar pitching. If the composition of how the team is succeeding on the field changes, that won’t make them better or worse, just different. It sounds tautological, but wins matter, not how those wins are achieved.

Anyway, on to the more interesting stuff. I went back to 2001 and pulled every team’s ranking that year in offense for non-pitchers (again, hitting plus baserunning) as well as total pitching fWAR. (In case it isn’t self-evident, I’m adamant about using pitching fWAR because I’m trying to remove defense, which is linked to the same position player personnel accruing the hitting stats, from the equation.) Here’s what I found.

Fact #1 — What the Braves are doing is not very common at all

Since 2001, there have been 540 complete team-seasons (30 x 18). The number of team-seasons featuring a top-10 offense and bottom-10 pitching staff is just 35, or about six percent. Now, if you think about it, this perhaps isn’t that surprising: the chance that a team finishes in the top 10 of anything is 33 percent (10 / 30), and if you assume hitting and pitching talent are randomly distributed among teams, the chance that that team also finishes in the bottom 10 of something else is around 11 percent (33 percent x 33 percent). However, we know that talent isn’t randomly-distributed: good teams tend to be broadly good, while bad teams tend to be broadly bad. It’s hard to know exactly how many teams were intentionally good offensively and bad pitching-wise, and it’s not like the 2019 Braves are how they are by design, either. So, 11 percent is probably the upper bound, and perhaps six percent, or around half of that “natural rate” is about right. In any case, that’s what we see, and it’s pretty rare.

Note: the “rate” of this occurring hasn’t changed much over time. It’s six percent in the whole 2001-2018 sample, as well as six percent in, say, the 2010-2018 sample.

There’s one other consideration here: will the Braves even finish 2019 as one of these teams? After all, the current 23rd-ranked pitching staff is only a small improvement away from rising out of the bottom third of MLB teams, and the Braves already managed to avoid said bottom third in May.

We can refer to the Fangraphs Depth Charts and do some very simplistic math to try and get an answer. The Depth Charts estimate that the Braves will have the eight-most-valuable position player group for the remainder of the season. Now, that includes defense, so we can also refer to Fangraphs projected standings, which give the Braves a (non-park-adjusted) projection of the eighth-most runs per game over the remainder of the season, or the sixth-most runs in baseball for the full season, including what’s already happened. No matter what, it seems like a reasonable bet that the offense will hold up its end of the bargain. The current 10th-place offensive team has a 106 wRC+, so the Braves (113 wRC+) would need to hit worse than the current 18th-place team (99 wRC+) for the remainder of the season in order to fall out of the top 10 by the end of the year, assuming everything else stays similar.

The pitching end is maybe a little more fraught. The Depth Charts see the Braves as having the 11th-worst pitching value going forward, so not quite bottom 10. The projected standings see the Braves as allowing the 11th-fewest runs per game going forward, but this isn’t park- nor league-adjusted, and the Braves are middling in the National League (sixth-best) by this measure. The full-season estimate is 15th in MLB, but 9th in the NL at run prevention, and this also includes defense. So, it’s hard to tell exactly what will happen here — but it’s worth noting that there’s still a good chance the Braves do finish as a top-10 offense, bottom-10 pitching team. After all, if the Depth Charts are right, the Braves will end up there, as the average of 20 and 23 is just barely above 21, i.e., bottom 10.

Fact #2 — These teams have a somewhat harder time making the playoffs

This probably shouldn’t be surprising. Good teams make the playoffs. Good teams are more likely to have good hitting and good pitching, rather than good hitting but bad pitching.

Of the 35 teams meeting these criteria, only eight made the postseason, or about 23 percent. Under the old playoff paradigm, 27 percent of teams (eight of 30) made the postseason; under the new playoff paradigm, it’s one-third of teams (10 of 30). Hence, These teams undershoot those thresholds, but just by a bit. If anything, this finding might actually be surprising — before you read this section, what would you have expected the playoff likelihood for these teams to be? Half of that of a randomly-chosen team?

This trend also doesn’t show much time-bias. In the Lightning Round era (2012-present), there have been 12 good offense, bad pitching teams; four have made the playoffs, exactly the “natural rate” of playoff teams in that span. In the prior era, the “natural rate” was 27 percent, and four of 23 teams (17 percent) made the playoffs. I suppose one could reason that the addition of a second Wild Card made it easier for teams with relatively unorthodox roster compositions to garner a playoff spot, and that does seem to be the case.

In any event, pairing bad pitching with good offense is probably not a great way to make the playoffs, but it doesn’t seem that harmful. Maybe a bit, and certainly less nowadays.

Fact #3 — (this is the big one) Playoff success doesn’t seem to be hampered for these teams

Let’s talk about the playoffs, as though all the teams in them were equal. We’d expect:

  • 10 percent chance of winning the World Series;
  • 20 percent chance of making the World Series;
  • 40 percent chance of making the Championship Series; and
  • 80 percent chance of making the Division Series.

Here’s how our eight playoff teams that made the postseason with good offense and bad pitching actually shook out:

  • 37.5 percent (three of eight) won the World Series;
  • 50 percent (four of eight) made the World Series;
  • 50 percent (four of eight) made the Championship Series; and
  • 66.7 percent (six of eight) made the Division Series (i.e., two of eight lost the Lightning Round game).

I mean, sure, we’ve got a sample of eight teams, but... from what we know, going back to 2001, these teams don’t actually have any problems making waves in the playoffs. If bad pitching were a playoff success impediment, it would hopefully show up somewhere in the last two decades. However, that just doesn’t seem to be the case. Even if it does, the effect has not yet been observed. which in turn makes me skeptical that such an effect exists.

The eight teams in detail

  • 2006 Cardinals — 10th in offense, 27th in pitching. Hey, remember that time an 83-win team won the World Series, giving an infinite supply of ammunition to anyone that wanted to put their weight behind “the playoffs are really, really random” arguments? Thanks, 2006 Cardinals! We owe you one. The worst regular season team to ever win a championship, these Redbirds finished with the third-worst rotation and eight-worst bullpen in baseball. The bullpen was literally just Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper (both quite good) and then a bunch of replacement-level arms, not to mention a hilariously ineffective closer in Jason Isringhausen (-0.9 fWAR, 129 FIP-, 110 xFIP-, but 33 saves) who didn’t even pitch in the World Series. In the championship series, the bullpen only pitched 20 percent of the innings. The rotation wasn’t much better — Chris Carpenter was awesome and Jeff Suppan was okay, but everyone else was quite bad — yet in the World Series, replacement-level midseason acquisition Jeff Weaver and replacement-level Anthony Reyes combined with Carpenter and Suppan to limit the Tigers to just 11 runs in five games.
  • 2007 Phillies — 2nd in offense, 25th in pitching. There’s actually not too much to say here, as these Phillies made the playoffs and promptly got swept out of the NLDS by the Rockies. Cole Hamels (good in 2007) and Kyle Kendrick (okay in 2007) didn’t fare very well in the first two games, and Jamie Moyer (okay in 2007) did his best in Game Three, but a bullpen full of just-a-guys and Brett Myers (the one good reliever who pitched no meaningful innings in the three games) blew it.
  • 2009 Phillies — 2nd in offense, 21st in pitching. Two years later, the Phillies again tried the same formula and got much further. They even beat the Rockies in the NLDS in four games, but ultimately couldn’t beat the Yankees in the Series. There’s too much to dissect about this team’s pitching staff, which added a bunch of high-profile pieces for the stretch run, including the last hurrah of Pedro Martinez, but basically the clobber-the-opposition-while-having-a-few-good-pitchers worked until it didn’t and the Yankees (by far the best offense that year, and a top-five pitching staff) clobbered them right back.
  • 2010 Reds — 2nd in offense, 22nd in pitching. Ran into a Phillies team that threw Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt at them in a short series. Got no-hit in one game and shut out in another. Welp. Sometimes you’re the 2009 Phillies, sometimes you’re the 2010 Reds.
  • 2012 Giants — 5th in offense, 22nd in pitching. This team featured two good starts (Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner), an okay starter (Ryan Vogelsong), and an okay but nondescript relief corps. It swept the World Series with one big win and then three close games. The Tigers had the league’s best pitching to go with a top-five offense that year, and both were on display in the ALDS and ALCS, but the Giants just edged them three times in a row. One bad Justin Verlander start was kind of the difference in the series, as the other games really could have gone either way.
  • 2014 Giants — 7th in offense, 26th in pitching. This team was basically Madison Bumgarner pitching-wise and knew it, as he pitched over a third of the team’s frames in the World Series, the NLCS, and the entire Lightning Round game. The only real moral here seems to be: ask your one good pitcher to pitch a ton of playoff innings and hope that’s enough and that he doesn’t fall to shambles in the process. Good talk.
  • 2014 Pirates — 2nd in offense, 28th in pitching. They ran into Madison Bumgarner in the Lightning Round game.
  • 2017 Twins — 10th in offense, 21st in pitching. The most well-rounded of the eight teams, the Twins lost the Lightning Round to the Yankees because its two best starters (Ervin Santana, Jose Berrios) faltered, and while they were able to rough up an elite Luis Severino to a similar degree, the Yankees literally had five relievers worth 1+ fWAR that season and used four of them (plus another decent arm in Tommy Kahnle) to get 26 of the game’s 27 outs.

Is there really a difference between these teams, other than their results? The 2006 Cardinals could have easily been the 2014 Pirates or 2017 Twins in a different playoff format; the 2007 Phillies and 2009 Phillies had very different results with similar rosters. The Giants won a World Series with Madison Bumgarner plus other stuff, as well as kinda-sorta-mostly Madison Bumgarner on the pitching end.

Anyway, I’m not seeing a pattern, and it doesn’t look like there is one. Good pitching teams succeed in the playoffs. Bad pitching teams can get good pitching performances and succeed in the playoffs. Bad pitching teams can even beat the best pitching teams four games in a row. If the Braves make the playoffs, just enjoy the ride. Don’t sweat the roster composition; it can’t exert enough order over the inherent chaos of a short baseball series to matter.