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October 19, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

Whither Runs?

by Joe Sheehan

One of my friends made an offhand comment to me Wednesday, something about how he thought that evening's game would be a 3-2 contest, "just like all the other ones."

The line was a throwaway one, but I thought it was a good observation. It certainly has seemed to me that the postseason has been distinctly different from the regular season. It seemed as if runs were very hard to come by, there'd been very few home runs, and in particular, very few walks, as compared the regular season. It also seemed to be that last year had been similar, but again, I didn't have a lot of data to support the notion.

So I decided to work through the problem, as much to satisfy my curiosity as anything else. My gut tells me that the popular notion that "pitching and defense wins in the playoffs" is just so much conventional hooey, but what I'm seeing on the field tells me that maybe there's something to it.

We'll start at the top. The average major-league baseball game in 2001 saw 9.55 runs scored. So far in the playoffs, there have been 6.18 runs per game.

Case closed, enjoy the weekend.

OK, it's not that simple. For one, there are no playoff games in Denver, and none that involve the Rangers pitching staff. Only the top halves of pitching staffs are being used, for the most part, and some of the best pitchers in the game are accounting for a huge chunk of the innings being thrown.

Let's run at this from a different angle. The following chart lists the average runs per regular-season team game for each of the eight playoff teams, followed by the runs per game in their playoff games:


Team            R/G Season    R/G Playoffs     Decline

Mariners 9.59 7.57 -21% Yankees 9.48 5.86 -38% A's 9.44 6.00 -36% Indians 10.60 8.40 -21% Braves 8.47 6.20 -27% Diamondbacks 9.23 4.71 -49% Astros 9.98 6.67 -33% Cardinals 9.25 4.40 -52%

In every case, these teams are seeing at least 20% fewer runs scored in their games than they did in the regular season. In an era in which we expect scores of 11-6 and 9-8, where multi-homer games are commonplace, the postseason looks like two weeks out of 1966.

That's important for everyone involved. With runs more scarce, tactics that should normally be reserved for late-inning situations--sacrifice bunts, for example--become more acceptable earlier in the game. All one-run strategies have a more prominent place, with fewer long innings and almost no crooked numbers on the board. Risks on the basepaths, usually anathema when the threat of the multi-run jack is present, look a lot better when the best you can hope for is a sacrifice fly (sorry, Mr. Tejada; you shoulda gone).

This is important to opinionated guys writing baseball columns, too. Watching Thursday's ALCS game, I cringed when Derek Jeter bunted following a leadoff single by Chuck Knoblauch in the first inning. That's the kind of thing that causes us to want to hang Don Baylor in effigy, But when games are all ending 3-1 and 4-3, getting ahead, getting a run on the board, is a valuable thing. (Especially when, as David Schoenfield's excellent ESPN.com piece illustrates, the Yankees' dynasty is all about the work they get from their pitchers, particularly their bullpen.)

We're not used to this, a function of seven years of inflated offense. It's hard to recalibrate on the fly, but it's something we have to do, the same way we have to watch games in pitchers' parks and hitters' parks with different mindsets. That's the difference between regular-season and playoff baseball right now: the difference between a game in Dodger Stadium and a game in Enron Field.

Why are there fewer runs being scored? Well, there's the obvious point that a disproportionate number of innings are being thrown by future Hall of Famers. Breaking it down, we see that all the elements of offense--batting average, walks, and power--are way down:

For the eight playoff teams:


                        Season       Playoffs

Batting Average .271 .234 AB/Walk 9.8 12.4 AB/HR 28.3 36.7 AB/XBH 10.7 13.8

(Aside: exactly how hard do you have to hit a ball to go yard at Safeco Field? Yeah, I know Stan Javier did it, but it sure seems to me like a lot of well-struck balls the last few days have ended up as F7.)

None of this is going to change the world, and I know there are a lot of problems with the analysis, small sample size foremost among them. But I now think, looking at this, that the conventional wisdom about the playoffs being a different game has merit, and that the playoffs we've been watching over the past couple of years don't really bear much resemblance to baseball we watch during the regular season.


           Season R/G    Playoffs R/G

2000: 10.28 8.29 1999: 10.17 10.52 1998: 9.58 7.23 1997: 9.53 8.41

Only in 1999 did scoring not drop by at least a run per game in the postseason. (That was the year of the Indians/Red Sox Division Series, during which the teams combined for 79 runs in five games.) Generally, though, the run environment of the regular season looks nothing like the run environment in October.

Keep that in mind as you watch Alfonso Soriano try to steal third base in the second inning this weekend.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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