This article was written by James K. Skipper Jr.
This article was published in the 1980 Baseball Research Journal
An important part of the folklore of baseball is the significance attached to pitching in winning games. John Schwartz in his article, “New Measures for Pitchers” in the 1979 edition of the Baseball Research Journal writes: “Pitching as the old cliche goes, is somewhere between 75 and 90% of baseball.” The legendary Connie Mack is supposed to have remarked: “Pitching is 75% of baseball.” All baseball enthusiasts are familiar with such phrases as : “good pitching will always stop good hitting,” “pitching is the key” and “pitching will always win out in a short series:” They are part of the oral tradition of the game. They have been passed on from generation to generation since baseball’s infancy.
The purpose of the study reported here was to ascertain whether today’s baseball experts still believe pitching is the most important ingredient in winning baseball and how they compare it with batting, fielding, and other factors. During the winter of 1978, we sent a short, one page questionnaire to the 26 field managers and the 26 general managers and/or chief executives of all major league baseball clubs, and 26 selected sportswriters and sports broadcasters. In addition, the commissioner and presidents of both major leagues were contacted. Included with every questionnaire was a stamped self-addressed mail back envelope. Each respondent was informed in a covering letter:
“We are currently investigating the ability of various baseball statistics (batting, pitching and fielding) to predict team standing. As part of our research, we are gathering opinions of baseball experts as to their estimates of how important each of these aspects of the game is to winning.”
Then they were asked:
What percentage of winning baseball do you believe is due to:
- other factors_______ (Please specify):
*On behalf of co-author Donald Shoemaker, we express our appreciation to all the major league field managers, general managers, sportswriters and broadcasters, the office of the commissioner, and the presidents of both major leagues for their helpful cooperation in our questionnaire survey.
We received replies from 24 of the 26 general managers (92.3%), 18 of the 26 managers (69.2%), and 18 of the baseball sportswriters and sports broadcasters (69.2%). However, two of the replies from management and four each from the managers and sportswriters and sports broadcasters did not include completed questionnaires. The management of the Boston Red Sox sent a letter stating: “We believe it is unfair and inaccurate for us to state that winning baseball is due to a certain percentage for hitting, pitching, etc. All are inter-related.” The letter concluded: “. . . assigning each a definite percent is an impossibility.” The Cincinnati Reds’ letter of refusal was quite different. It stated that they were unable to fulfill our request because the questions involved “privileged information” which was not “made available to any sources.” The four managers and four sportswriters and sports broadcasters who replied, but did not complete the questionnaire, all stated that they did not believe that winning baseball could be evaluated by percentages. Nevertheless, in written remarks several of them commented on the relative value of various aspects of the game, as did the President of the American League. Their remarks will be examined later.
Of the 50 baseball experts completing the questionnaire, 44 ranked pitching the most important factor in winning baseball. One manager and two general managers stated that pitching and batting were of equal importance. However, three of the general managers at the time — Al Rosen (Yanks), Calvin Griffith (Twins) and Joe McDonald (Mets) — rated batting of more significance than pitching. A quantitative summary of the results of the questionnaire survey is presented in Table I. For the total sample, pitching, with a mean percentage of 59.5%, is considered to be the most important factor in winning baseball. Put another way, the 50 experts collectively believe that almost 60% of winning baseball may be attributed to pitching. Although not as high as Connie Mack’s estimate of 75% or others of 90%, the modern day baseball experts consider pitching to be more important than batting, fielding, and other factors combined! Consider the following comments written in on the questionnaires:
- “No other factors are important — good pitching is the key.” (Don Kessinger, former manager, White Sox).
- “Pitching and control dominate the game.” (Bob Fontaine, G.M. Padres).
- “Pitching by far is the best defense and offense.” (Bob Kennedy, G.M. Cubs).
- “Pitching is a major part and without it you are a second division club.” (Henry Peters, G.M. Orioles).
- “Pitching is #1. If your pitcher pitches a shut-out you can’t lose!” (Al Campanis, G.M. Dodgers).
Batting was listed far behind pitching as the most important factor in winning baseball, followed by fielding. Other factors were considered to play the least part. However, there was a wide range of opinion about what these other factors were. We will comment on this point shortly. Note, that even though pitching has the highest mean percentage, the range of variation is great, from a low of 15% (Joe McDonald — G.M. Mets) to a high of 80% (C.C. Johnson Spink, editor, The Sporting News; and Herman Franks, former manager of the Cubs). This is also true of batting where the range was from a low of 10% (Bob Kennedy, G.M. Cubs) to 55% (Joe McDonald, G.M. Mets). The range for fielding was from 0% (Gabe Paul, G.M. Indians) to 35% (Al Rosen, former G.M. Yanks). A number of the experts, including Tom Lasorda, manager of the Dodgers, felt other factors played no part at all. Yet, at the high end of the range, Jack Buck, broadcaster of the Cardinals, stated that other factors were 20% of winning baseball.
In examining the three categories of general manager, manager, and sportswriter/sports broadcaster, several patterns can be seen. General managers attribute the highest percentage to batting and fielding and the sportswriters and sports broadcasters, the lowest. On the other hand, the sportscasters and sportswriters attribute the highest percentage of the three categories to pitching and other factors with the general managers the lowest. For all four factors: pitching, batting, fielding and other factors, managers hold the middle position between the general managers and sportswriters and sports broadcasters.
One way of interpreting the finding would be that general managers, who are usually in charge of stocking teams with players, are likely to stress batting and fielding more than the other two groups do. Sportswriters and broadcasters, who are most likely to influence fans’ attitudes and views on baseball, emphasize pitching and other factors more than the other two groups. Managers caught in the middle between pressure from both management and media take a center-of-the-road position, being at neither extreme and perhaps vulnerable to pleasing neither.
The other factors which were thought to influence winning baseball need special comment. President MacPhail of the American League said:
“With all the pitching and hitting and fielding you could reasonably ask for, you can still lose over a major league season without a fair share of other factors.”
Although the 50 experts collectively believed they contributed just 4% to the total picture, what these factors were, how often they were mentioned, and their importance varied greatly. Table II summarizes these opinions. Player attitude and desire, player speed, and player hustle were the most frequently mentioned factors. Thus, the experts seem to believe that the player who wants to win, runs fast, and runs all the time, although not a substitute for natural ability for batting, fielding, and pitching, is nevertheless an important contributing element in winning baseball. Player intelligence and mental makeup, ability to take charge, throwing accuracy, and knowledge of fundamentals were also qualities which were mentioned by at least one of the experts.
It is interesting that only three of the experts mentioned the manager as being a factor, and not one of these three was a manager himself! One can only speculate that if managers are not generally considered to be an important factor in winning games, then their frequent hiring and firing must be due to reasons other than their ability to affect the course of team outcomes on the field. Several of the experts mentioned other factors which did not involve either players or managers. For example, Danny Ozark, former manager of the Phillies, listed umpire decisions, and Harding Peterson, G.M. of the Pirates, mentioned attendance and fan enthusiasm.
In one of the more interesting responses to our survey, NBC sportscaster Tony Kubek wrote:
“There are far too many variables (and intangibles) for me to generalize with a specific percentage in rating the importance of each aspect of baseball.
- 1) Is Sandy Koufax pitching? That day pitching might be 95% of the game!
- 2) Against whom is Sandy pitching, the 1927 or 1961 Yankees or the ‘Hitless Wonders’ White Sox? Again the percent ages would fluctuate. Defense is difficult to gauge.
- 3) Also. Are we playing on artificial surface with all good bounces or the red rock hard clay of Chavez Ravine in L.A.?
- 4) If the game is being played in Yankee Stadium at night, a monstrous park at a time when the ball does not carry — advantage pitcher. Take the same line-ups to Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, or Atlanta and you swing the percentage more to hitting.
- 5) Prevailing winds, barometric pressure, and elevation above sea level all effect these percentages along with the size of parks.
- 6) An overlooked (and important area) is where baseballs are stored. In Chicago (White Sox) in damp, cold area under stands for months. In Cincy, nice, warm, dry furnace room.”
Several tentative conclusions may be drawn from the survey. First, the vast majority of today’s experts agree that pitching is the most important component of winning baseball. Second, the collective judgment of today’s experts that pitching is almost 60% of winning baseball is considerably below the 75% figure mentioned by Connie Mack, let alone the 90% estimated by others. Third, variation in estimates of the relative importance of pitching, batting, fielding, and other factors exist. There is no consensus among the experts. Fourth, variation is best predicted by whether the expert is a general manager, manager, or sportswriter or sports broadcaster.
General managers weigh batting and fielding more than sportswriters and broadcasters and they in turn believe pitching and other factors are more important to winning baseball than general managers. On all four components, managers’ estimates fall between those of general managers and sportswriters and sports broadcasters. While other factors are considered by the experts to be only a small part of winning baseball, there is no consensus as to what these factors are and whether they involve players, managers, umpires, fans, weather conditions, size of ball park, temperature of the baseball and so on.
Estimates of the Relative Importance of Primary Factors to Winning Baseball
|MEAN %||RANGE %||MEAN %||RANGE %||MEAN %||RANGE %||MEAN %||RANGE %|
Estimates of the Relative Importance of Other Factors
|FACTOR||TIMES MENTIONED||Highest % ATTRIBUTED|
|Player attitude and desire||8||10%|
|Size of home ball park||3||10%|
|Player throwing accuracy||1||2%|
|Player field leadership||1||20%|