The 2012 Divisional series between the San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds seems a fitting, if ironic, match-up. After gaining the reputation of a hitting heavy club without much pitching in the unwelcoming confines of Great American Ballpark, the Reds won 97 games while scoring approximately 60 fewer runs than their league and park. Of course, featuring a sleepy offense doesn’t matter when you allow the fewest runs in the National League. Rather, it’s this year’s Giants that have the all-hit, no-pitch club, outscoring their league and park by nearly 100 runs to compensate for a pitching staff that is more than 40 runs worse than their environment.
Forget those aces, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, that top comeback pitcher Ryan Vogelsong, that surefire ace-in-training Madison Bumgarner. That gang of four pitchers prevented more than 50 runs on their own in 2011, not one of them ranking outside of the Top 25 pitchers in the NL. Sure, Cain was very good this year, and Vogelsong and Bumgarner were slightly better than average as a pair; but the Giants lost ace Lincecum, who moved from 20 runs above average in 2011 to approximately 33 runs below average in 2012. After previously anchoring their rotation as a phenom, Lincecum (along with Barry Zito) provided a performance worth skipping every five days.
Bronson Arroyo gladly stole whatever magic Lincecum lost in 2012, and if Arroyo was one of the worst NL starters in 2011, one wouldn’t know it this year. Rather, the renowned kitchen-sink thrower joined ace Johnny Cueto, newcomer Mat Latos, and surprising starter Homer Bailey to produce an extremely above average pitching rotation. A more motley group of aces we haven’t seen in some time, but the Reds’ rotational transformation is a beautiful sight.
Furthermore, both rotations pitched a remarkable percentage of their starts. Neither of these teams required a sixth or seventh starter throughout their respective seasons; in fact, both clubs merely featured a few arms that made one emergency start (each). Even these clubs’ emergency starts couldn’t be counted on two hands. Undoubtedly, these clubs’ healthy, regular rotation gave their teams clear foundations for their pitching staffs, establishing clear roles between the rotation and bullpen, and requiring few transactions throughout the season. Compared to a Brewers club that required ten different starting pitchers and one emergency starter, those Reds and Giants rotations almost look criminal.
There are few general rules about baseball teams that actually cohere if you analyze them. One of my favorite examples is the “Pitching wins Championships” rule; I like to say, “Pitching wins Championships, except for when hitting does.” The point being, of course, that there are multiple ways to build a playoff club (and to succeed in the playoffs); there isn’t a simple tipping point in baseball that allows the best combination of pitchers to win (otherwise, the Philadelphia Phillies would have won last year’s Championship without trouble). San Francisco and Cincinnati both show how pitching can fluctuate between seasons; no one would have expected the Giants’ gang of aces to yield a below average starting rotation, and yet they’re a better team than they were last year. Meanwhile, the Reds show that pitching absolutely helps when the offense goes missing; in these cases, pitching MUST win for a ballclub.
Oddly enough, despite their different levels of starting pitching, both the Reds and the Giants had good bullpens despite losing their veteran closers. While the Reds’ bullpen was exceptional, and the Giants’ closer to average, both bullpens did not hand away many leads throughout their season. Thanks to their offense, and due to their starters, the Giants’ bullpen inherited 169 leads of 3-or-fewer runs in 2012; they converted more than 91% of those leads. Meanwhile, the Reds’ bullpen saw only 147 leads; while they blew more leads than the Giants, the Reds’ bullpen still managed to convert nearly 88% of their lead opportunities. (By comparison, our Brewers converted just over 81% of their 154 lead opportunities).
While we think about the Brewers’ potential pitching situation for 2013, I propose that we think about lessons that the Reds and Giants provide. At the risk of getting carried away with general rules, or concerning ourselves with just what pitching arrangement the Brewers should build, we can use the fate of these clubs to draw several lessons:
(1) Indeed, pitching performances fluctuate over time, and a group of above average starters is not guaranteed to pitch above average seasons each and every year.
(2) An unheralded group of pitchers can put together a strong rotation, especially if they’re healthy and don’t miss many starts.
(3) Even if a starting pitching rotation is below average, a strong offense and good bullpen can maintain a winning ballclub.
(4) Make sure your bullpen is deep and full of warm bodies even if you pay for a bigtime relief ace.
Between these clubs, we can conclude that balance between elements is extremely important for baseball clubs. Mainly, if a club has a few good elements (such as the Reds’ rotation and bullpen, or the Giants’ offense and bullpen), those elements can rectify a below average element (such as the Reds’ offense, or the Giants’ rotation). There need not be a demand to fix one and only one area of a club, for there is no magical area of a ballclub that guarantees winning. This is the greatest lesson of the 2012 Reds and Giants: both clubs used good bullpens, and overall balance, to compensate for their shortcomings.