I was listening to a discussion on the radio the other day about the Houston Astros baseball team. The team surprised a lot of fans last year by holding first place in the American League West most of the season and while faltering down the stretch still was able to take a Wild Card spot and win the Wild Card game against the Yankees.
The conversation turned to the makeup of that winning team. The consensus was that it was all because of pitching and home run hitting. That is true. The Astros had the best pitching earned run average in the American League. They also hit 230 home runs. A number of other offensive things they did not do well. They struck out way too much…didn’t have an outstanding on base percentage and pretty much relied on the home run to score runs.
Then I thought of pro basketball. Teams that win now are good on defense and hit a lot of three point shots. Defense in basketball is like pitching in baseball. Don’t let the other team score much. Then, on offense fire up a bunch of three pointers. Hitting one of every three provided points at the same rate has hitting one of every two two-point shots. In other words go for the long ball. Don’t worry about the little things like making extra passes of hitting the short shots (the singles of baseball). Extra passes mean more chances to screw up with a turnover.
Next game football. Again we start with defense. Have a strong defense. Offensively have a team that can score quickly with few plays. That can be accomplished by a solid deep passing game or runners who have the skill to break off huge chunks of the field on the ground. The more plays needed to get down the field the more chances there are to fail or make mistakes. Thats like a baseball team that needs to string three singles together to score. One breakdown and nothing happens. One home run and something is guaranteed on the scoreboard.
See the patterns? In all three cases it would seem the numbers have shown teams and coaches the method to win is to swing hard and hope you hit it, but always play solid defense (or pitch).
The problem is that this philosophy may win a lot of games, but it is really the best strategy to win the big ones?
In Houston the shoot quick from three point range got the Rockets to the NBA Western Finals last season. This year the offensive strategy hasn’t changed but the team has been floundering because they have ignored the defensive part of the plan. They are not guarding anyone well consistently.
In football, the Texans had the defensive part down pat, but had an offense that could not get the ball downfield quickly and in few plays so scoring was a challenge unless the defense had already set them up with good field position.
We don’t know what the Astro season will provide, but if the pitching–which is the cornerstone of baseball defense– falls off, the team might fail to meet expectations because they have few ways to score runs in close games if the home runs don’t come.
It would seem that the number crunchers who are essentially running pro sports these days have taken a lot of the fun out of sports. The big play is the thing. But a team that relies on three point shooting, but can’t hit them and doesn’t really run plays providing other alternatives is awful to watch. A baseball team that strikes out frequently and can’t squeeze out runs without home runs is the same. A football team that heaves pass after pass downfield with most falling uncaught will will wind up punting a lot.
It is also true in football a team that cannot execute a consistent running game that is capable of conducting a drive without the big play is just a punt waiting to happen, too, …or a penalty or turnover away from having to play defense. The option for the long pass play is necessary as an option. But just bombing away hoping one will hit is not.
The big plays are exciting, but no matter what the sport, they don’t come that frequently. It behooves teams to learn to play the full game no matter what sport if they want to win the ultimate prize.
I name New England (defending NFL champs), the Kansas City Royals and the Golden State Warriors and I rest my case. All three were capable of doing it all and did not rely on the long pass, home run or three pointer to win. They played the full game.