One of the uncontested axioms in sports is that “Defense wins championships.” You hear it in all major team sports. You hear it in the playoffs. And you hear it from players, coaches and broadcasters.
But is it true?
According to the book Scorecasting, it is not true. For example:
- in the 44 Super Bowls, the better defensive team won 29 times while the better offensive team won 24 times…not much better than random chance.
- the Super Bowl champ has been a top-5 defensive team in the regular season 28 times, while the Super Bowl champ has been a top-5 offensive team in the regular season 27 times. Again, nearly even.
- the Super Bowl champ has ranked in the bottom half of the league in defense three times, while only twice has the Super Bowl champ been ranked in the bottom half of the league in offense.
- 27 Super Bowls have pitted a top-five offense against a top-five defense. The best offensive team won 13; the best defensive team won 14. Again, nearly even.
- in the 407 NFL playoff games over the last 44 seasons, the better defensive teams have won 58% of the time, while the better offensive teams have won 62% of the time. Again, nearly even, this time the offense getting the slight edge.
- in almost 10,000 regular season games, the better defensive team won 66.5% of the time while the better offensive team won 67.4% of the time.
- of the 64 NBA Championships, 9 have gone to the best defensive team while 7 have been won by the superior offensive team.
- in the NBA playoffs, the better defensive team has won 54.4% of the time while the better offensive team has won 54.8% of the time.
- in the 50,000 NBA regular season games, the better defensive teams win no more often than the better offensive teams.
- although trickier to analyze in baseball since defense includes pitching, the superior defensive team has won 44 of the last 100 World Series while the better offensive team has won 54 times.
- in baseball postseason games, the better defensive teams have won 50.8% of the time while the better offensive teams have won 51.8% of the time.
- same holds true in the NHL when looking at Stanley Cups, playoffs and regular season.
So statistically, it’s just not true that defense wins championships. Sometimes offense wins championships. Obviously, having both a top defense and a top offense is even better.
What about in youth baseball?
Pro sports does not show any evidence that defense wins championships. Now, as a youth baseball coach, this made me think: does defense win championships in youth baseball? I had been so ingrained that “defense wins championships” that, during youth baseball drafts, when players were rated as being able to do one significantly better than the other, I always focused on players who could field more than players who could hit. But let’s take a look at the stats in the youth baseball league that I coach in (one of the largest in the local area).
In the case of youth baseball, the better offensive team is defined as the team that scores more cumulative runs during a season than its opponent; the better defensive team is defined as the team that allows the least cumulative runs during a season.
In the 2009 playoffs for 7 & 8 year olds (tee-ball & coach pitch), two games featured one team that was better offensively while the other team was better defensively. The better defensive team won one game; the better offensive team won one game. Another draw.
But now it gets interesting.
In the 2010 playoffs for 9 & 10 year olds (coach pitch & kid pitch), eight games featured one team that was better offensively while the other team was better defensively. The better offensive team won a whopping seven of the eight times!
In the 2011 playoffs, seven games featured one team that was better offensively while the other team was better defensively. Five of those seven contests were won by the better offensive team!
Thus, even in youth baseball, again we see that it’s just not true that defense wins championships. In fact, the stats suggest that it’s actually offense that wins championships!
If you think about it, this revelation makes sense. Without curve balls and sliders to fool hitters, the old adage that “good pitching beats good hitting” just is not true in youth baseball. Unless the kid pitcher is blessed with an elite fastball, good hitters can make solid contact against good pitchers, often resulting in hits, which often lead to runs. On the other hand, a team that has many struggling hitters will also struggle to score runs, relying on their own kid pitching and defense to keep the game close. But as we covered, good hitters can hit good pitchers in youth baseball. So it’s a vicious cycle that stacks the odds against offensively-challenged teams. After all, scoring more than your opponent is what wins games.
An easier way to look at why offense wins championships in youth baseball is this: you can “hide” a subpar defensive player in the field but you can’t “hide” a subpar offensive player at the plate. The ball may never be hit to your below-average defensive player, but the ball will always be pitched to your below-average offensive player.
So the next time you go into a youth baseball draft and you’re deciding between a kid who’s an offensive star but struggles defensively vs. a kid who’s a defensive star but struggles offensively, go for offense and don’t look back.
What do you think? Is my minor insight biased b/c of the small sample size from my youth baseball league? Or do you think it’s pretty consistent with what’s happening in the much large sample sizes of professional sports?