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Defending Offense

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The major league baseball season begins tonight, with the St. Louis Cardinals beginning their title defense against the New York Mets. And, as always, with Opening Day comes optimism. Fans across the country have convinced themselves that this year the (insert local team here) will challenge for the pennant and make a strong push in October. Next year is now.

In no area of the country is this Opening Day optimism felt more strongly than in Los Angeles. Sports Illustrated has projected an Angels-Dodgers World Series. 13 of 18 ESPN.com "experts" have picked Derek Lowe (pictured) and the Dodgers to win the National League West. All five "experts" at CBS Sportsline have picked the Dodgers to win their division, and two of those five CBS "experts" have chosen the Boys in Blue to win the NL pennant. (Alas, four out of five dentists still agree that sugarless gum will win the NL West, but the fifth has abstained from voting, so we can only assume he's a Dodger fan.)

The optimism is not contained to the national media. In the Sunday Los Angeles Times baseball preview, noted writer of tear-jerker articles (and sometimes sports columnist) Bill Plaschke has piled on the bandwagon as well. In his column "Mound for mound, they look like the best around", Plaschke writes:

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"What are the 2007 Dodgers and Angels going to do about their lousy hitting?

Pitch their way out of it, silly.

While the rest of us were screaming for sluggers, the Dodgers and Angels have been scheming for shutouts.

With all of Los Angeles begging for more long balls, the Dodgers and Angels have been collecting more fastballs.

The result is two pitching staffs that could be baseball's best, leading to low-scoring summer nights and high-octane fall afternoons, resulting in …

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A true Freeway Series?"

Plaschke goes on to note how the Dodgers and Angels both have vastly superior pitching staffs, and that since pitching wins championships, the Dodgers and Angels had better cancel any previously scheduled October plans.

And he writes this all in short paragraphs.

Very short paragraphs.

Stylistic points aside, it's worth looking into Plaschke's central argument that offense be damned, and pitching is all that matters. While Plaschke is traditionally more of a "team chemistry" and "character" guy, he trots out a few statistics to back up his point. Namely,

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"The last 10 World Series champions have had at least two pitchers throw at least 190 innings each. These Los Angeles staffs could have at least three pitchers top that mark."

and

"Only three times in the last 10 years has the World Series champion not been ranked in the top five in their league in earned-run average."

Aside from the fact that these statements are based on purely arbitrary time periods, rankings, and/or volumes, they're also missing one critical element. Specifically, they do not address how well the offenses of these World Series champions performed. And it is that crucial aspect of the game that Plaschke, in all his pre-season optimism and Ned Colletti worshipping, is rashly neglecting.

Last year, the Dodgers scored more runs per game than all but three teams in the National League, and rode that offense to the NL West crown. One of those teams that scored more runs was the New York Mets, who in turn swept the Dodgers right out of the playoffs in three games.

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This year, the Dodgers offense has been significantly weakened. Their most productive hitter from last year (JD Drew) is now playing in Boston. Their leader in runs scored (Rafael Furcal) is starting the season on the disabled list. And after a terrific spring where he led their team in hitting, the Dodgers' best young hitter (James Loney) is for some inexplicable reason starting the year in the minors. Not a single player on the Dodgers roster hit more than 20 home runs last year. And to use a Plaschke-esque statistic, no team has won the World Series without a 20+ home run hitter since 1982.

While the Dodgers used the offseason to upgrade their pitching, their hitting took a step backward. Slap-hitting Juan Pierre and worn-down outfielder Luis Gonzalez, the Dodgers two key off-season acquisitions, can't be expected to strike fear into opposing pitchers' hearts. Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra are both another year older, and can't be expected to last the entire season.

On Saturday, Los Angeles Times staff writer (his paragraphs are a bit too long for him to be deemed a Columnist, apparently) Bill Shaikin wrote a terrific article titled "Lies, Damned Lies ... and Baseball Statistics?" in which he took a measured look at the proliferation of statistical analysis in Major League Baseball. In it he discussed both sides of the issue, giving equal time to those who saw Juan Pierre as both the National League hits leader, and those who noted he led the National League in outs as well.

The lesson - it's always important to look at both sides of any argument. Looking at just one side can make for inaccurate predictions. And unsuccessful baseball teams.

All of this is not to say that the Dodgers won't be competitive this year. They're a power hitter or two away from being an awfully good team. It's still spring and optimism still rightfully abounds. However, Plaschke and Colletti need to keep one thing in mind: While it's certainly important to have good pitching, it's imperative to have good hitting as well.

After all, 100% of teams that outscore their opponents end up winning. And that's a statistic you can take to the bank. Or even the World Series.

photo by woolennium via Flickr