Commentary

Why plate discipline is winning strategy

In war of attrition, Red Sox and Yankees beat teams by wearing down pitching staffs

Updated: April 8, 2010, 1:30 PM ET
By Curt Schilling | ESPNBoston.com

In 1993 I had a ringside seat to "Moneyball" before it existed. If you read the book, you received clear insight into Athletics general manager Billy Beane and his approach to finding value in hitters and pitchers. It wasn't tied to the "Big Three" (homers, RBIs and average) but instead focused on much more relevant statistics as they relate to offense.

On-base percentage, to Billy, was king. After all, the goal is to not make outs, right? So if you are getting on base, a walk truly is as good as a hit in most cases.

I was exposed to OBP destroying opposing pitchers 17 years ago (see chart at right), and it resonated with me.

What left an impression very early in that 1993 season in Philadelphia was how few opposing starting pitchers were still in the game in the seventh inning. That mattered because as a result our offense got to the soft underbelly of pretty much every staff (i.e., middle relievers) every single night. That's WITH a pitcher in the lineup.

Wednesday night's Red Sox-Yankees game was a fantastic example of how the change in scouting offensive talent, and the skill sets being focused on, are changing the game in big ways.

The box score will show a 1-0 game after six innings. It will also show that neither starting pitcher -- both top-of-the-rotation guys -- was in the game to start the seventh inning. That's pretty rare to see, two top-line starters out after six innings of such a low-scoring game.

Both John Lackey and Andy Pettitte are innings guys, guys you count on to get you deeper in games. The problem is both lineups are stacked, and even on great nights for pitchers, navigating lineups like these can tax you beyond what the box score shows. Lackey faced 22 hitters through six, just four above the minimum, and he was at 100 pitches (an average of 4.54 pitches per plate appearance).

It's an overlooked component of great lineups, their ability to "beat you" even when they don't. To get through nine innings Wednesday night, the Red Sox had to go four pitchers deep. And those four pitchers gave up a total of just one run. That's where you begin to understand the attrition of the AL East. This scenario is not exclusive to these two teams, either. While I don't believe the Rays are anywhere near these two teams with their ability to run up a starter's pitch counts, they do have a lineup that will pose problems for rotations lacking depth.

[+] EnlargeJohn Lackey
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesHow was John Lackey at 100 pitches at the six-inning mark despite giving up just three hits and no runs? The Yankees were working him deep into counts.

The effects are far-reaching. As the schedule moves into May and June, off days become scarce and staffs begin to tire as they face more lineups that drive up pitch counts. It's one of the primary reasons you don't ever buy into the "we have too much pitching" argument. The valid statement is "you can never have too much pitching," and it has become a hallmark of the American League now and in the foreseeable future.

Let's say on a Monday your starting pitcher goes into the seventh inning, throwing 110 pitches. You use your seventh-inning reliever, setup man and closer to get through the game. On Tuesday, your No. 5 starter goes three innings and gets pounded. That happens. So what now? You're either into your mop-up guy -- "suck it up and get us through the sixth or seventh" -- or you're still managing to try to win because your offense is that good. In that case, you will burn through your entire staff trying to manage the next six innings.

Maybe you hold the line and get the W, but that becomes an insanely expensive W because Wednesday you've given your starter the "I need you for seven, regardless of the score tonight" start. Most of us have had those, some more than others. That's not a problem when you're handing that start to a 35-year-old veteran in your 3-4-5 slot. However, you don't hand that start to a Tim Lincecum, David Price or Jon Lester. If one of those kids has the ball you've got issues. That's when you'll see a team like Boston make short-term moves to "get an arm." The earlier in the season that happens, the worse off you are, because as the summer plays out arms fatigue, shoulders tighten and pitch counts get higher as you incorporate the 12th-20th man on your staffs to manage and win games throughout the season.

It almost makes managing a rebuilding team far easier than managing one in contention in some cases. The Nationals, Pirates or Royals wouldn't dream of running a Stephen Strasburg out on three days' rest or giving Zack Greinke a 130-pitch start. But if your team is in the mix and October is a possibility, you are sometimes put between the proverbial rock and a hard place of winning now and protecting the future health of your pitcher without understanding you're there.

Curt Schilling, who pitched for the Red Sox from 2004-08, is a three-time World Series champion, six-time MLB All-Star and founded 38 Studios. Curt and his wife, Shonda, have raised money to fight ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) through Curt's Pitch for ALS. They have also encouraged awareness of the need for sun protection through the SHADE Foundation and recently announced their support for the Asperger's Association of New England after their third child was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.

Curt Schilling, a three-time World Series champion, pitched for the Red Sox from 2004-08. Curt and his wife Shonda have raised money to fight ALS (www.curtspitch.com), encouraged awareness for sun protection (www.shadefoundation.org) and announced their support for the Asperger's Association of New England (www.aane.org) after their third child was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.

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