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October 17, 2002
What Kind of Team Owns the Playoffs?
The Angels beat the Yankees, the Twins beat the A's. Are teams that depend on the single and the stolen base better in the post-season than teams that play for the three run-home run?
Let's check it out. My theory is "no." I think any approach that gets a team through 162 games and into the playoffs will be an approach that'll be successful in those playoffs, if it's Weaver or Baylor.
So first, a disclaimer: I'm going to be putting some wide, wide stats in the blender here and pushing 'puree'. Maybe the 'pulse' button a couple of times. I'm using all raw stats and throwing this out as a first stab at the issue. I'll be moving on from here in future columns.
The average major league pitching staff had an ERA of 4.27, threw 1,442 innings, gave up 1,442 hits (seriously), 747 runs, 684 earned runs, 542 walks, 1,046 strikeouts, 290 doubles, 31 triples, 169 home runs, hit 58 batters...
So how about some rate stats? 28 balls in play/9, 3.4 walks/9, 6.5 strikeouts/9, 1.1 HR/9, Hits on balls in play was .276.
(BIP as batters faced - bb-so-hr, hits on balls in play as (h-hr)/bip).
Park-adjusted, the teams that went into the playoffs ranked 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 11, and 12 in starting pitching, and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 16, and 19 in bullpen strength. No matter which way you stack that, the teams that went into the playoffs brought better-than-average staffs with them.
Looking at the pitching of the playoff contenders, they've got an ERA of 3.71 and 28.3 BIP/9, 3 walks/9, 6.6 strikeouts/9, .9 HR/9, aaand, further, they only gave up hits on balls in play at a .270 clip.
So what do we see already? While strikeout rates are almost the same, walks are 10% scarcer, and home runs are almost 20% less frequent. At the same time, putting the ball in play is only slightly less effective, even though you're facing strong defenses.
These statistics don't quite tell the story: heading into the post-season teams drop their 5th starters and sometimes their 4th, depending on how advantageous their scheduling is. Spot starters and 11th men are all discarded (unless, uh, they're Cardinals). And the guys who pitch into October, they're almost to a man pitchers who strike out more and don't give up the long ball nearly as much as the pitchers getting dropped.
Here's the composite raw regular season line for every pitcher who appeared in the playoffs through the League Championship Series:
3.42 ERA, 27.4 BIP/9, 2.8 walks/9, 6.9 strikeouts/9, .9 HR/9
Tougher and tougher. That's half a walk less, half a strikeout more, and one-half less ball for the defense to catch.
At this point, I'm thinking my theory's wrong: if you're a team like the Twins or Angels, good at getting hits on balls in play, to the tune of being 10% better at it than Oakland, you can kick (say) Oakland's butt offensively as they see fewer of their precious walks and get served fewer pitches they can drive into the bleachers. Or you'd think.
This ignores two obvious issues, of course. First, offense: the playoff teams all also took above-average offenses into the playoffs (unless they were Atlanta). Surprisingly, I found that there's not a significant difference in walk rates per plate appearance of the teams that went into the playoffs this year over a normal team, and the increase in the home run rate was only about 10%.
And second, defense. Few teams make the playoffs with bad defense. For all the talk about how Oakland punts defense, they were a top-flight defensive unit, along with Anaheim, Atlanta, and San Francisco. So putting balls in play is actually going to be less effective against playoff opponents than most regular season matchups. At the same time, the best defenses in the league only converted maybe 200 or so hits into outs--the difference between Anaheim and Tampa Bay was less than one conversion a game.
(Brief digression: how bad are the Devil Rays? Seriously, this is a team that park-adjusted ranked near the bottom of the league in offense, defense, and pitching. They've got nothing, folks, nothing. May Piniella save their souls.)
All of these stats, adjusting them up and down, don't really do much to change what we can expect in a game compared to the regular season: 10% fewer walks means two walks for a team in a 5-game series. A 10% drop in home runs might be one less home run, but then if you buy that home runs are equally to the credit of the pitcher and the hitter, the increase in home run power from the offense sets that off. Defenses turning three or four hits a series into outs, that's just as bad. It's a wash so far.
Next up: Post-season matchups: does batting average beat OPS? Are there other ways to look at this issue?