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Ongoing debate: Offense or defense?

Posted by Jeff Nusser on February 13, 2008

We’ve had a nice debate over at the WSU football blog that I’d like to continue here about what the Cougs’ biggest problem during the losing streak was — offense or defense? Where to lay the blame?

Those shouting on behalf of the offense pointed to the missed opportunities — specifically free throws — in the losses to Cal and Stanford, and the inefficiency of the offense, with specific reference to turnovers, against UCLA.

Those shouting on behalf of the defense (mostly just me) feel like we wouldn’t even be talking about our missed offensive opportunities if our defense had even remotely resembled last year’s edition. Since this is the blog I write for, I can make my case here with some extended points.

First of all, it’s undeniable that a few more free throws or a Derrick Low 3 would have likely won both the Cal and Stanford games. It’s debatable to me whether turning the ball over a bit less and keeping the Bruins out of transition would have made that much of a difference in that game, but it certainly didn’t help the effort. So I’ll admit that the offense certainly contributed to the losses.

But I won’t back down from the assessment that our issues in our five losses have largely stemmed from defense. Here’s the analogy I used. It’s a little long in the narrative, but I think it makes the point:

Say you’re watching the Mariners. Carlos Silva starts the game and gives up four runs in six innings. He wasn’t really shelled, but he didn’t exactly do his job, either, as a series of hard hits and bleeders do him in. Then, Sean Green comes in and pitches an inning, giving up a run on a solo homer. Next, Eric O’Flaherty takes the hill and promptly walks the first batter. He gets a couple of outs, and is on the verge of getting out of the inning unscathed. Then, suddenly, the next batter lifts a fly ball into the left-center field gap. A speedier left fielder catches it, but not Raul Ibanez. The ball drops harmlessly in the gap, the runner scores and batter walks in with a double. O’Flaherty walks the next guy intentionally, and in comes Brandon Morrow to get the final out. He promptly walks the next batter, then gives up a sharp line drive that scores another run.

The pitching staff has now given up seven runs through so-so pitching and suspect defense. The offense has tried to keep pace as best it can — Ichiro is 3-for-4, Adrian Beltre’s got a bomb … heck, even Richie Sexson has a two-run double. But it’s still not yet enough, as the M’s enter the 9th down 7-6.

Ichiro starts off the 9th with his fourth hit of the night. Jose Vidro gets a hit. Beltre hits a deep fly ball that’s tracked down at the warning track, and both Ichiro and Vidro are able to tag up. (A stretch, I know, but go with it.) Playing the percentages, the opposing manager walks Ibanez. The count on Sexson quickly works to 0-2 before he turns a curveball that’s six inches off the plate and at his ankles into a harmless 6-4-3 double play. Game over, as the rally falls short.

Now, who do you blame for the loss? The offense, for not being able to squeeze out just one more hit to win the game? After all, the game was right there — just one more hit would have done the job and everyone could have walked away happy. Or do you blame the pitching and defense, which should have been able to make six runs — normally more than enough to win — hold up?

I’ll take pitching and defense any day of the week in that scenario. And that’s my point with the Cougs. Yes, making those free throws or hitting one more 3 would have resulted in a wins and made us feel a heck of a lot better emotionally. But would we be a better team than we are after two losses? I argue that we’re the same team, and that the defensive flaws still existed, whether we win or not.

In fact the best indicator of how well a team is really playing often is a stat called “efficiency margin.” (It takes offensive efficiency (what’s that?) and subtracts defensive efficiency. It’s kind of like scoring margin, only better, because it eliminates the tempo factor.) Here are the top 10 teams in efficiency margin last year in the conference and this year. Notice anything? 

Efficiency margin 4

There is a pretty big correlation between efficiency margin and record, and the biggest difference between these Cougs and the Cougs of last year is defensive efficiency, plain and simple. If we play better defense along the way, we don’t need those free throws at the end and we’re looking at 9-2 or 8-3 instead of 6-5. That is success that is sustainable, a la last season. And that’s why I’m excited about this team right now. I saw huge positive strides on Thursday and Saturday, and I have no reason to believe that they can’t continue this weekend against two teams that are very beatable.

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