October 3, 2008
Are You Experienced?
We go through this every single year, but the storylines never change. The notion that post-season experience is a driving force in post-season success never goes away. No matter how many times a team with little or no post-season experience—the 2007 Rockies, or the 2006 Tigers, or the 2003 Marlins, or the 2002 Angels—makes a mockery of the idea, we find ourselves back in the same situation each fall, with writers and players pointing to experience as a factor on par with talent, when in fact it doesn't matter at all. Whatever success teams with post-season experience have that makes it look like it is a factor—say, the Yankees from 1996-2001—is better explained by this: teams that get back to the postseason a lot tend to have good baseball players.
Playing well is what matters, and despite the endless discussion of the value of playoff experience, there's not much correlation between having been there before and playing well now. It's a stock storyline that allows for easy, space-filling quotes, and facile explanations of good and bad performance. Every time a young player fails to make a play, or doesn't get a hit in a key spot, or spits the bit on the mound, it gets attributed to an inability to handle post-season pressure. Whenever a veteran succeeds in a comparable situation, the experience is cited as the reason.
It's all just too easy. The fact is, baseball doesn't work that way. Players handle pressure successfully, on balance, or they wouldn't be MLB players. Sometimes, MLB players make mistakes, have a bad start, a lousy week, and it has nothing to do with pressure. Baseball is a hard game, but it's hard in April and June, too, and this idea that has developed over the last 15 years—which seems, to me, to have started when MLB went to three playoff tiers in 1995—that October baseball is vastly different from the regular season, has led us down a pretty misleading path.
Adding to the irrationality is that the threshold for post-season experience seems to bounce all over the place. Some writers referenced the Phillies' 2007 post-season experience as an edge for them over the Brewers. Apparently, getting wiped out in three games is valuable, and spending about 15 minutes in the postseason makes you experienced. Other pieces compared the Brewers' and Phillies' experience—neither has won a post-season game or series since before the Division Series existed—as if the two were comparable.
How about this? Post-season baseball is just baseball with more media credentials and fewer games between flights. Pressure? There may be more, but is it any more than that faced when you're trying to get drafted? Make a team? Win a playoff spot? Does this week really feel more pressure-packed for the Brewers or White Sox than last week, every game a must-win game, did?
The stock storylines don't add anything to our enjoyment of the game. Whether it's "post-season experience" or "veteran leadership" or "pitching and defense" or "small ball," all these attempts to fit the postseason into boxes limit our knowledge rather than expand it. If we're going to break down these games, and figure out why players do well and poorly, why teams win and lose, let's wipe the slate clean and focus on what's happening on the field.