In each of the first three games of the American League Championship Series, the Detroit Tigers held the Boston Red Sox to zero hits through the first four innings. Such a statistic shows that pitching is king, which plays into the popular belief that pitching and defense are more important in the playoffs than in the regular season. In other sports as well, you’ve probably heard the cliche “offense wins games, defense wins championships.” Is this cliche true? In looking back on recent years, I tried to verify this saying using basic logic and actual evidence, because it seems like something would have to explain why the mighty Red Sox offense failed to produce against the Tigers’ pitching.
With football and basketball, it’s important to reference the Sports Illustrated piece “What’s Really Behind Home Field Advantage” by Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim. They proved that home field advantage really comes down to the calls that a referee makes. As it relates to football and basketball, a team’s home field advantage generally has the biggest impact on the outcome of the game, as it’s important to remember that the majority of the calls that a ref can make against a team are on defense. If the ref is more likely to swallow his whistle for a certain team when it is on defense, and if the team is more likely to win in part because of the home field advantage itself, it makes sense that we associate winning teams with better defenses. Other reasons also apply, such as how the NFL playoffs are played in the heart of winter, with the inclement weather sometimes inhibiting offensive production.
In baseball’s playoffs, the cliche doesn’t revolve around defense in fielding, but defense in terms of pitching, like the impressive performances by the Tigers’ starters in the first three games of the ALCS. With all of the off-days in the playoffs, teams can pitch their three best starters six times in a seven game series — when it’d usually take 10 games to get six starts out of the same guys — and teams can also throw their best bullpen arms more frequently.
Finally, in hockey, the prevailing phrase isn’t just that defense is key, but that a “hot goalie in the playoffs” is the only path to success. This claim also has merit because a team can play its top goalie every game without having to use its backup, as there are very few back-to-back games come springtime. Similar to football and basketball, the majority of penalties in hockey will be called when a team is on defense, so it benefits defensive powerhouses when the refs don’t call penalties. Therefore, the prevailing thoughts of defensive importance pass the unscientific test in all four sports.
Of course, nothing is proven without evidence. In 2012Miami Heat, the eventual champions, gave up 92.5 points per game in the regular season, while giving up 90.2 in the playoffs. In 2013, the repeat champs surrendered 95 ppg, while allowing just 90.7 in the playoffs. Many of the best teams over the past few years have been built on defense, such as Kevin Garnett’s Celtics, Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls and the Big Three’s Heat. Also, the vintage Spurs of the last decade were known for defense. Of course, we must remember that the Heat wouldn’t have succeeded without their ridiculous offensive firepower, and many champions like the 2010 Lakers were better offensively in the postseason, according to the team efficiency ratings of former NBA analyst for ESPN John Hollinger.
Defensive NFL teams have also seemed to fare better in the postseason, with the Patriots winning three Super Bowls with defensive-led teams, while losing two others with offensive star power against the Giants — who had fearsome pass rushes. The Ravens and the Packers, the last two non-Giants teams to win the Super Bowl, also had strong defensive units. But the theory isn’t perfect, as we must remember that the Ravens wouldn’t have won without Joe Flacco putting up what was almost the best postseason performance by a quarterback of all time. Additionally, the Saints and the Packers won a few years ago with high-powered offenses led by the two best QBs in the league at the time, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
As far as the MLB goes, the Giants and the Tigers reached the World Series last year behind amazing pitching staffs that carried them to the Fall Classic, despite the teams scoring 4.3 and 3.2 runs per game in the postseason, respectively. It should also be noted that Cliff Lee was instrumental in getting his 2009 Phillies and 2010 Rangers to the World Series. Yet while the 2010 Rangers only scored 4.3 runs per game, Lee’s 2009 Phillies scored 5.5, which is strong for a National League team. The Yankees, who beat the Phillies in that series, averaged a similar 5.4 runs per game. Finally, the 2007 Red Sox, who won it all, averaged a whopping 7.1 runs per game.
In the NHL, the 2013, 2012 and 2011 Champions — the Blackhawks, the Kings and the Bruins — all had red-hot goalies who were vital to their teams’ successes. But the 2010 Blackhawks had a goalie who was so amazing that they let him go for nothing in the offseason. The 2009 Penguins also beat the Red Wings after losing to them in the Stanley Cup Finals the previous year, but their goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, had a save percentage that was actually 2.5 percent higher in 2008 than in 2009.
The overall takeaway here is that, while the popular belief that “defense wins championships” does seem to be more true than false, it’s not nearly as absolute as you’re supposed to believe.
Tom Hoff is a junior in the McDonough School of Business. Down to the Wire appears every Friday.