October brings out pitching, defense

Oct 24, 2006 8:46 AM

October memories glare the brightest in baseball lore.

Bobby Thompson’s 1951 home run, Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of the ’56 Series, Bob Gibson’s 17-strikeouts in Game 1 ’68, Carlton Fisk’s home run in ’75, Kirk Gibson’s blast in ’88, Joe Carter’s Series ending three-run homer in 1993. While home runs mostly dot the top of the memorial landscape, October baseball can also feature memorable defensive plays and great pitching performances from starters and relievers.

This is important from a betting perspective and is the main reason the Detroit Tigers surprised the oddsmakers. They were 50-1 to win the World Series before the season started. No doubt the public sentiment will be on the Tigers. The assent of the Tigers this season has been one of the great sports stories we’ve seen in many years.

It’s Detroit’s first World Series trip in 22 years. Just three seasons ago Detroit lost an incredible 119 games! The Yankees spent $206 million dollars, but got smoked in four games by the Tigers and their $85-million payroll. That’s 2.4 times less than NY. Why? Their pitching was better, ranking first in the AL with a 3.84 team ERA.

Taking a content analysis of the last 11 years of the World Series, you’ll notice that pitching and defense shine a bit more on the October stage than offense. Over that time there have been 34 ”˜unders,’ 24 ”˜overs’ and 2 pushes in World Series play. Is this a fluke? Or are there reasons for more low scoring games?

There are, in fact, plenty. Since the World Series is the last battle of the season, managers are going to the best pitchers. This is why you see three and four man rotations in the World Series, whereas in the regular season teams employ a five and sometimes six-man rotation. Simply put, the No. 4, 5 and 6 starters during the regular season aren’t going to see much (if any) important action in late October.

The same is true for relief pitchers: A team generally has two or three quality relievers and three or four marginal/below average arms. Naturally, a manager is going to use his best often and go to his weakest arms only if necessary.

The Yankees spent millions on an offensive lineup for the ages this season, leading the majors in runs scored. They scored 60 more runs than the next best team (Indians). However, offensive teams are built for the regular season. Teams stocked with a balanced line up and excess pitching, both starting and in the bullpen, are built for October.

In addition, defense is a subtle, often overlooked aspect of baseball. There’s an old adage that teams win with pitching, hitting and defense, and that’s true. This is why you often see teams with outstanding center fielders, shortstops and catchers in the World Series. A team needs to be strong up the middle. Good defense helps your pitchers, turning double plays and keeping the other team from scoring.

Finally, the weather is far colder in October than in July and August, and it’s tougher to hit a baseball under those conditions. When the World Series takes place in northern cities (Boston, New York, Cleveland, Detroit) it can be very cold in late October.

In the ALCS, the series shifted from the mild climate of Oakland in the first two games to very cold Detroit for Game 3. It was 42 degrees at game time, the lowest for a postseason game since it was 38 in Cleveland at the 1997 World Series. The final score? 3-0 Tigers, far under the total. In fact, the Tigers are 91-70 under the total this season.

Three years ago, the Cardinals and Red Sox combined for 20 runs in Game 1 of the World Series — a sloppy, mistake-filled, walk-fest that sailed ”˜over’ the total. The next three games, however, went ”˜under’ in 6-2, 4-1 and 3-0 Red Sox wins.

In the 2003 World Series between the Yankees and Marlins, five of the six games went ”˜under’ as pitching and defense excelled. The Series was capped by Josh Beckett’s 2-0 clincher at Yankee Stadium in Game 6.

So don’t be surprised if pitching and defense shine a bit more than offense.