MLB: What Wins Championships – Offense, Defense, or Pitching?

The World Series is the most coveted prize in all of baseball worldwide. Every year, MLB teams attempt to craft together the perfect world championship formula. However, what is more important – offense, defense, or pitching?

Throughout the history of MLB we have seen powerhouse teams. We have seen the teams that have a pitching staff made of gold, and then we have seen the offensive super sluggers. In today’s game we have these powerhouses – the Cubs and Red Sox are easy World Series favorites with stellar offenses and defenses. We have entered an NBA-like time, where the title contenders seem apparent from day one. Of course, baseball is always unpredictable, so that may not be the case.

There is no exact formula to win a championship. If there was, it would be easy for any team to do so. We have seen so many different champions in the game of baseball, all with different great traits. However, throughout the game of baseball, what wins more championships is a viable question. Should teams focus on pitching and defense, or offense? The obvious answer is both; but throughout the history of MLB what has won more, offense or defense?

We will start with recent years and examine this decade of champions. To do so, we are using Fangraphs team rankings to analyze an offensive team from a defensive team, and vice versa. To understand these teams, we are using the Off, Def and pitching WAR statistics, all courtesy of Fangraphs.

Off and Def practically measure the amount of runs a player generates compared to league average. If a team has a 0.0 they are right on average; anything more or less is above or below average. Pitching WAR measures pitching Wins Above Replacement, essentially how valuable a pitcher is.

As for the last seven world champions the results may be staggering:

  • Cubs: 2nd in Off, 1st in Def, and 4th in pitching WAR.
  • Royals: 12th in Off, 8th in Def, and 15th in pitching WAR.
  • Giants: 11th in Off, 10th in Def, and 23rd in pitching WAR in 2014; 6th in Off, 4th in Def, and 19th in pitching WAR in 2012; and 15th in Off, 1st in Def, and 5th in pitching WAR in 2010.
  • Red Sox: 1st in Off, 17th in Def, 15th in pitching WAR
  • Cardinals: 4th in Off, 20th in Def, 17th in pitching WAR

As you can see, there aren’t many world champions that dominated every facet of the game. The Chicago Cubs effectively did last season, but the only other first place rankings were the 2010 Giants’ Def and 2013 Red Sox’s Off. Some teams weren’t really high in any stat, like the 2014 Giants and 2015 Royals.

The averages for these teams (rounded to the nearest whole number) are seventh for Off, ninth for Def, and 14th for Pitching WAR. As you can see, offense has been the most important, with pitching being the least. Of course, the argument can be made that playoff pitching is entirely different, which is true, but to build a durable consistent contender teams are turning to offense. In fact, the last team to lead in pitching WAR and win it all was the 2005 White Sox.

However, these are just recent trends. What areas did the best teams ever excel in? Many of the best teams ever occurred in the early 20th century, so let’s look at some of the more recent, dominant World Series winners. The 1998 New York Yankees own the 12th best record ever and the fourth best for being World Series champions. That Yankees team ranked first in Off, 20th in Def and third in pitching WAR. Defense took a back seat in this one, but the offense once again proved to be the most beneficial.

An even older example is the last Mets team to win the World Series in 1986. That Mets team won 108 games en route to winning the World Series via Bill Buckner‘s blunder. Those Mets ranked third in Off, fifth in Def and tied for first in pitching WAR. Along with last season’s Cubs, these Mets prove to be the most well-rounded champions included.

For the most part, teams have utilized different tools to bring home championship gold. While there are outliers on both ends, it seems the best route is try to master two facets of the game. However, with recent trends, it seems that offensive production may be the route to focus on.

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