In Praise of the Pitcher’s Duel

In his inaugural piece for Grantland, the legendary Bill James goes in-depth on the 100 best pitcher’s duels of 2011.

What are the elements of a great pitchers’ duel? A pitchers’ duel is a low-scoring game, obviously; a 1-0 game is the champion of its list. The term “pitchers’ duel” implies that the starting pitchers pitch well, as opposed to staggering through five innings un-scored upon and handing it off to the bullpen. We think of a pitchers’ duel more highly if it involves pitchers of stature. A 1-0 game is more memorable if it is Sabathia against Verlander than if it is Marco Estrada against Kevin Correia. Which, by the way, actually happened last year; Marco Estrada and Kevin Correia matched up on August 13 at Miller Park, and the result was a 1-0 game. Go figure. There’s a woman involved somewhere.

Anyway, a great pitchers’ duel implies that there is something at stake beyond fifth place, although you don’t want to place too much emphasis on that criterion, or you wind up warbling on about Jack Morris in 1991, long after anybody cares.

Four criteria — low-scoring game, quality pitchers on the mound, pitchers pitch well, and something is at stake. It is a pretty easy measure of any of those. Low-scoring game … that can’t be any easier to measure. Quality starting pitchers on the mound; that’s not hard. Game of significance; we can get there with a little work. The only hard part is matching the scales, saying how much weight can be given to the quality of the starting pitchers, how much to the performance of the starting pitchers, how much to the score of the game, etc. That requires a pinch of subjective judgment.

I still warble on about Jack Morris in the ’91 World Series. Gutsy performance by an aging veteran on the biggest stage. I was the perfect age (11) to still not be jaded by professional sports.

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