West Coast Pitching Dominance

This past weekend, the first of interleague play, the Seattle Mariners swept the San Diego Padres, outscoring them 14-2, while a few hundred miles down the coast, the San Francisco Giants swept the Oakland Athletics, outscoring them 10-5. Neither of these series were the lowest scoring of the weekend as the Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies combined to score only nine runs in a three game series. Nonetheless, the Mariner-Padre series and the Bay Bridge series were illustrative of the growing dominance of west coast pitching.

Last year, the San Francisco Giants won the World Series with a pitching rotation led by four pitchers, all of whom were 27 or younger, pitched at least 100 innings and posted ERA+ of 115 or higher. Two of those pitchers, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, pitched more than 200 innings, while Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner posted ERA+ of better than 130. As impressive as those numbers looked, they were replicated by the Oakland Athletics just across the bay. In 2010, the Oakland Athletics also had four starting pitchers who were under 27, actually 26, all of whom also pitched 100 or more innings and posted ERA+ of 115 or better. Three of these pitchers, Gio Gonzalez, Dallas Braden and Trevor Cahill pitched 190 or more innings, while Cahill and Brett Anderson posted OPS+ of 130 or better.

The Giants and Athletic pitching rotations are indicative of a broader trend of pitching in the west coast. In 2010, the three west coast AL teams were all in the top six in the league in pitching. In the NL, the Padres and Giants were first and second in ERA, while the Dodgers were a respectable seventh. Thus far in 2011, the Padres and Giants are third and fourth in ERA in the NL. In the AL, three of the top four teams in ERA are west coast teams.

The Phillies have the best rotation in the NL, but other than that, it seems as if for some reason the best starting pitching in baseball is concentrated in the west coast. Nine of the 33 pitchers who have pitched 150 or more innings with ERA+ of 120 or greater during 2010-2011 play for one of the six west coast teams. When only pitchers who are 27 or younger are included, west coast pitchers constitute fully 40% of pitchers with these numbers. By contrast, only two of the pitchers under 27 years old, play for teams in the Northeast.

There have been times in the past when the style of baseball in the two leagues has been quite different. The NL outpaced the AL in integration which led to their dominance in All Star Games throughout much of the 1960s. The AL in recent years has been generally viewed as the better offensive league, but the current development is different because it is based on geography not league. The difference looks more like the West Coast Offense in football which evolved in the 1980s as teams from the West Coast, notably the San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers developed offenses which relied heavily on the passing game. Today we have West Coast baseball which is characterized by good young starting pitchers such as Lincecum, Cahill, Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw.

There are several possible explanations for this. The first is that it just a random development and not a big deal. The second is ballpark effects. Although ERA+ takes ballpark effects into consideration, teams that play in parks that favor pitchers might be more likely to develop teams that rely primarily on strong pitching. The Mariners, Padres, Dodgers and Angels all play in pitcher’s parks. The A’s play in a neutral park. AT&T Park was a pitchers park in 2010, but a hitter’s park in some previous seasons. Teams in the West Coast appear to have sought to take advantage of the parks in which they play by building pitching based teams.

These explanations are both reasonable but also unsatisfactory because there are other similarities between these West Coast teams. They all have not only good pitching, but good young pitching acquired largely through the draft, including players like Hernandez, Kershaw, Cahill, Braden and virtually the whole Giants rotation. Moreover, most of these teams, particularly the four that play outside of Los Angeles, generally do not pursue high priced free agents, albeit partially because they cannot, preferring instead to find cheaper veteran players, like Aubrey Huff or Hideki Matsui to fill in holes in their offense, while relying on a strong home grown pitching rotation. This model fits the Athletics and Giants, who are at the epicenter of the West Coast pitching model, best but also applies somewhat to other teams like the Padres and Mariners.

While the origins of this difference between the West Coast and the Northeast may be partially economic, partially random and partially due to ballpark effects, the result is that a distinct West Coast style of baseball has evolved. The home run heavy, weak starting pitching and strong veteran bullpen approach best represented by the New York Yankees is not tried by any West Coast team; and the Red Sox are the only East Coast team with any young starting pitches, Clay Bucholz and Jon Lester, who are good enough and young enough to stand out in the west. Given the recent success of the Giants, who one quarter of the way into this season, are still playing very well, this model, which seems to be applicable in Florida as well, may catch on among mid-sized market teams outside of the West Coast, thus becoming yet another trend that originates in California and makes its way east.