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October 20, 2006
Have You Ever Been Experienced?
Undermining experience, embellishing experience, rearranging and enlarging experience into a species of mythology.
The Yankees-Tigers series opened, just as expected, with an overwhelming New York win. The FOX commentators, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, gleefully rained down on the viewer choruses of the ever-cloying "Murderer's Row and Cano," referring to the Yanks' tremendous offense. They pointed out that all nine batters in the lineup had been an All-Star at least once and that the Yankees had a great deal more experience in the postseason than did the largely untried Tiger lineup.
The FOX "Loser cam," the device used to pan the faces of the trailing team once it is apparent that they will very likely lose the game, tried to plumb the depths of their pathetic souls. The Detroit players were montaged as the Yankees batting in the seventh leading 7-4, with the only question whether the series would end in a sweep and whether Mariano Rivera would be allowed to pitch more than one inning to save each victory. This was even before Yankee captain Derek Jeter capped his five-for-five night with a home run to center and made a celebratory curtail call.
Four days later--you may have heard--the Tigers registered three straight wins and the Yankees offense shut down for over twenty straight innings, reviving in time for some meaningless runs at the end of game four. Depending on the prevailing winds on the given day, Joe Torre's job hung in the balance, perhaps to be replaced with a more "fiery" manager be it Lou Piniella, Larry Bowa, or the spirit of Billy Martin.
After the series, the pundits quickly cited the old adage that pitching beat hitting, that the Tigers' superior pitching shut down the Yankee offense, albeit a great one. I addressed this and found that there was not much in the historical record to support this contention. If anything, good hitting (at least high on-base percentage) seems to do a bit better than good pitching. Quoting the old cliché apparently serves as little more than a salve to the conscience of those who predicted an easy New York victory, or maybe as an homage to Crash Davis.
However, the fact that the Yankees were more experienced, a point held very much in their favor as the series began, was no longer addressed even though--or maybe especially because--three of Detroit's pitching stars for the series were youngsters. Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, and Joel Zumaya are all still short of their twenty-fourth birthdays. Either the Yankees got less experienced as the series wore on, or the issue of superiority in postseason experience became less meaningful. Of course, the former is impossible, but given that the as the World Series opens, we will undoubtedly be told that experience provides one team or the other with a distinct edge in the postseason, could it be that the importance of playoff experience waxes and wanes with the commentator's enthusiasm?
It does beg the question, however, of whether previous postseason experience does matter: does it figure into the outcome of a given playoff series? And does that experience constitute playoff or World Series exposure, or does regular-season experience outweigh both?
I took a look at every postseason series since the 1884 World's Championship between the National League and its then-rival American Association. I compared the series victors against the losers in a variety of categories: average age, total career regular season years, total career regular season games, total career playoff years, total career playoff series, total career playoff games, number of players with playoff experience, total career World Series games, total career World Series years, and number of players with World Series experience.
Each category was based on the players who participated in the series concerned. That means that some players that may have been active yet did not play in the series get overlooked, but I think this better represents the actual makeup of the playoff team. (Besides, for most seasons, there is no way to identify these players as opposed to the ones left off the roster altogether.)
Also, the values represent just the experience that the players amassed prior to the given series. What good does it do to look at the experience that a player has yet to, for lack of a better word, experience?
I also threw in the team's regular-season winning percentage and expected winning percentage (represented as both a ratio of the two teams' values and a differential) as a baseline. If there is a hidden potential in a team's experience than it should have more influence on the results for the series than the teams' records do.
I ran the results and I got a big fat zero, or maybe even less than zero if that's possible. The winning percentage in a postseason series has really no perceivable connection to the past experience of the given teams' players. The experience stat that correlated best with postseason winning was total career regular-season years. However, they had a negative or inverse relationship with winning (coefficient of -.150), meaning that a team that has players with more regular season years under its belt was slightly less likely to win the playoff series than a less experienced team. That's no good for our experience theory.
Also, none of the experience stats come close to any of the team record stats when it comes to winning. Keep in mind that a team's record does not correlate very well at all to postseason success: .283 for ratios of regular-season winning percentage, .273 for differential between regular-season winning percentage, .245 for ratios of expected winning percentage, and .236 for differential between expected winning percentage.
Of the remaining experience stats, they have so little to do with postseason winning that I am loath to list them, but my love for numbers will out. In descending order, they are total career regular-season games (inverse correlation, -.118), total career playoff series (.104), total career playoff games (.104), total career World Series years (.092), total career World Series games (.075), total career playoff years (.069), number of players with World Series experience (.067), average age (inverse, -.035), total career Win Shares (inverse, -.031), and finally, the one you see most often cited, players with playoff experience (.005).
So what have we learned? Past experience is meaningless when it comes to the playoffs. What matters is how the teams perform in the given series, not what they did in the past, and past regular-season experience seems to ever so slightly favor the less experienced team.
The next time your team your team is preparing for a postseason run by acquiring a veteran bat off the bench, a Jeff Conine or Lenny Harris type, for no other reason than to pick up some playoff and/or regular season experience, it might be a nice thing to do for the sake of that aging player, but it will probably have absolutely nothing to do with your team's postseason success. It might make for good on-air prattle for the talking heads calling the games, which proves less intrusive than airing a taped interview with the home team's pitching coach while an unreported rally mounts.
All and all, I am for the continued use of the experience wins playoff games cliché. Somewhere Crash Davis is smiling.
For kicks, here are the greatest differences between sets of playoff contenders.
First, here are the teams that faced off in a playoff with the largest average age disparity. Few would point to the Mets-Astros '86 NLCS (difference of 4.75 years) as the leader, but even with the vets the Mets added, they were a young team that should have had a bright future ahead, while the Astros had many holdovers from their early Eighties division winners. In the World Series, the greatest age difference (3.83 years) came in 2002, when the young, inexperienced Angels beat the aging Barry Bonds-led Giants. As for the oldest team to beat a young team, that came in the 2000 Yankee-A's division series (3.81 years older). However, in the World Series, the Orioles win over the Reds in 1970 was the most (3.18 years).
Next, we look at the greatest difference in total career regular-season years. The most was when the A's, who played 120 more seasons, met the Reds in the 1990 World Series. The biggest difference for a series in which an experienced team beat an inexperienced team was 115 seasons, when the M's beat the White Sox in the 2000 AL Division Series. Here are the rest.
Total Career Regular Season Years:
Turning from season to total career regular season games, the greatest difference (10,527 games or approximately 65 seasons) came in the 1981 LCS between the Yankees and the Billy Ball A's. The Yankees/A's come in second as well with the ubiquitous 2000 division series (9194 games). Ironically, the A's were at the end of the spectrum in 1990 when they lost the Series to the inexperienced Reds in the most lopsided series loss in terms of age (9139).
Total Career Regular Season Games:
The greatest difference for two playoff teams in number of players with playoff experience occurred in two World Series. Most recently it happened in the 2002 World Series, when the Angels, who had no players with playoff experience, beat the Giants (with 18). It previously occurred in 1968, when the Tigers (four players) beat the Cardinals (22). The winning team with the greatest advantage in playoff experience was (again) the 2000 New York-Oakland division series.
Number of Players with Playoff Experience:
The most lopsided series in terms of total career playoff years was, again, the 2000 Yankees-A's ALDS (66 years). The Cards in 1954 represented the least experienced team to knock off an experienced team, with 58 fewer playoff years than the Yankees. In the World Series, the team with the most experience to beat an inexperienced team was the Yanks in 1962 versus the Giants (58 years):
Total Career Playoff Years:
In terms of total career playoff series-this is getting repetitive-the 2000 Yankees come in first, with 132 more than the A's. The D-Backs over the Yanks represented the least experienced win in the World Series (with 124 fewer series than the Yankees). The most experienced in a World Series was again the 2000 Yankees, this time over the Mets (99 series):
Total Career Playoff Series:
The 2000 Yankees come in first again in terms of total career playoff games difference, with 496 more than the A's. The least experienced in this category was in the 2001 World Series--Arizona had 494 fewer games than New York.
Total Career Playoff Games:
In terms of the number of players with World Series experience, the 1990 and 1968 World Series are tied for first (18 players). The most experience in this category favoring a winning team came in the 2000 division series and the 1978 ALCS, both Yankee teams (16 more players).
Number of Players with World Series Experience:
For total career World Series games, the greatest difference came in the 1962 World Series; the Yankees had 271 more games of experience than the Giants. The least experienced beating the most experienced came in 1957, when the Braves beat the Yankees despite 242 fewer games of prior ultimate stakes exposure.
Total Career World Series Games:
Finally, the greatest difference in total career World Series years came in the 1962 and 1964 World Series (58 years).