I'm going to step back from the wreckage of the opening series sweep, and see what I can take from a column which Curt Schilling wrote for ESPN. Schilling addresses the question: how does offensive output affect pitching? As a former Red Sox starter, he wonders how the Red Sox will fare with the run prevention strategy which caused the team to jettison slugger Jason Bay. Schilling posits a different, perhaps more sophisticated, variant of the "pitching to score" concept.
In Schilling's view, high scoring teams reduce the fatigue / workload of the pitching staff. High scoring teams incur fewer blow out losses and more runaway wins. He believes this results in less workload for the pitching staff, particularly the bullpen. In his mind, this means that the high scoring team will have a more rested pitching staff in September and October.
"The point I am trying to make is your offense directly affects your pitching staff and its stamina over the course of a season," says Schilling. " You can't just burn through arms and get more from Triple-A or through trades each time you 'Proctor' a guy," Schilling's curious conversion of Scott Proctor's name into a verb is based on Proctor's supposed overuse as a Yankees' middle reliever.
I think this passage sums up his perspective:
This commentary is aimed at the Red Sox, but it may have relevance for the Astros who supposedly are taking the pitching/defense ("run prevention" in saber lexicon) path in constructing the team for 2010. Replacing high batting average hitter Miguel Tejada with a lessor bat like Tommy Manzella, and signing Pedro Feliz are the high profile examples. You also have to take the comparison of the Red Sox and the Astros down a few levels. The notion of an "explosive offense" hasn't been associated with an Astros' team since perhaps 2004. The newly constructed run prevention team in Boston probably would be viewed as an "explosive offense" compared to the current Astros.
Throwing 85 pitches in a 1-0 game was far more draining and tiring to me than 125 pitches in a 9-2 game...However, if they (Red Sox) are offensively challenged, you can feel that as a starter and you begin to grind in a game far earlier than you would with an explosive offense behind you. That might not show in April, but after 100 games it does, in the rotation and in the bullpen.
I would also point out that Roy Oswalt raised similar points last year, saying that his performance suffered because he felt like he had to make a perfect pitch each time he threw or he might lose the game. Schilling's comments also had some ring of truth as I watched the Astros in their opening series. In each game, the Giants gained an early modest lead, while the Astros' offense flailed so much, that a 3 run lead looked like a 6 run lead. Roy Oswalt was lifted after six innings for a pinch hitter because the manager was so worried about the offense's ability to overcome the Giants' lead. In the case of each Astros' starter, I had the distinct feeling that each one felt that any mistake would doom the team's chances, because a small Giants' lead looked so imposing. Schilling said that he didn't feel much pressure if he trailed 1-0 as a D-Back or Red Sox starter, because of those teams' offensive firepower, but that he did feel like he might lose if the same situation happened when he piitched for the 1990's Phillies. Do you wonder how Oswalt, Wandy, and Myers would have pitched if they had been gifted a 2 or 3 run lead in the early going?
Curt Schilling's comments probably have at least a kernal of truth. And he certainly has the pitching resume to lend credibility to his views. However, I don't know that I fully buy all of his arguments.
First, is it true that runaway wins preserve the pitching staff's stamina? Sure, I see some logic to his argument. However, the whole "pitch to score" concept is based on the idea that pitchers change their pitching style to an extreme "pitch to contact" approach when their team has a huge lead. Studies have suggested that the "pitch to contact" philosophy doesn't necessarily reduce pitchers' pitch counts. Although pitching coaches may push their pupils to adopt that approach (because they think strike outs use up too many pitches), the added base runners often create even higher pitch counts. If you assume a more extreme pitch to contact style for blow out wins, where pitchers are told that walks are the worst possible outcome, I think the "added baserunners" effect may be even more significant. I have witnessed fewer Astros blow out wins overs the years than I would like, but my memory tells me that Astros' aces often ended up giving up many more runs than you would expect, and frequently had to leave the game earlier than you would expect with high pitch counts.
Second, I suspect that the impact of offensive output on pitching results probably is marginal or else we would see more instances in which the top pitching teams are also the top offensive teams (an overlap which would probably lead to more 100 win teams than we are used to seeing). If explosive offense contributes to good pitching, why is it that the 2005 Reds' team was the best offense in the NL (an offense which happened to hit 222 HRs), but it's pitching was dead last (with a team ERA+ of 82)? That same year, the NL Champion Astros were 13th in offense (based on OPS+) but No. 1 in lowest runs allowed. The 2000 Astros team was the best offense in team history (938 RS) and the worst pitching in team history (944 RA). Only one NL team in 2009 and 2008 was ranked as both a top 5 in RS and RA. No NL teams in 2007 were ranked as top 5 in both RS and RA. Over the past five years, no more than two NL teams have been ranked as top 5 in both RS and RA.
Some of the best pitching I have seen in Astros history seemed to thrive on close games. Think about Roger Clemens on that 2005 Astros' team, who had ridiculously poor run support but one of the best ERAs in team history.. Moreover, Clemens' best work that season seemed to come when a team threatened to score in a tie 0-0 game. On the other hand, maybe the "Schilling Effect" is reflected in the injuries which broke Clemens down in the World Series.
Should we be on the look out for the Schilling Effect in future Astros' games?