We live in a world where the Kansas City Royals are on the doorstep of the World Series. Raise your hand if you saw that coming. (Jon Heyman of CBS and Steve Wulf of ESPN did!) There were plenty of people at the beginning of the year who were willing to make the “outlandish” prediction that the Royals might sneak in and grab a Wild Card (they did!) but the World Series? Baseball is full of surprises.
But of course, we’re into the postseason and everyone is watching the same games, rather than ten separate games going on at once. And now the games mean so much more to determining who will be champions of Major League Baseball in 2014. So now we get into the first-guessing and the second-guessing of every decision and the #NarrativeMachine and the momentum and the awful cliché-drenched interviews about never giving up and playing loose and playing together and playing “our game” and scoring more runs than the other team and the #MagicFairyDust. Yeah, we’ve reached the land of postseason myths. Spoiler alert: Most of them aren’t true.
People feel the need to say things during playoff games and about playoff games. After all, it’s that time of year and time to prove that you know something about the game. Of course, we know that a lot of what ends up being said is actually a mixture of urban legend, taurine feces, and anecdotal evidence. And there seems to be no shortage of myths to shoot down. So, let’s take aim at a few more, shall we?
Myth 1: Bunting is a bad strategy. (See also #Yosted)
Dave Cameron has already looked at Yost’s bunting decisions during the Wild Card game, and he came away with the verdict that three of the four were reasonably defensible. There’s still an ingrained “bunting is bad” reflex among Sabermetricians, mostly based on fairly outdated logic. Yes, the run expectancy table is higher in the cell that says “runner on first, no outs” than it is for “runner on second, one out.” The problem is that those numbers are based on the thought that there’s always a league-average hitter up. Managers don’t usually bunt with good hitters up. They bunt with bad hitters in front of good hitters. Sometimes, bunts go for hits (or the defense tries to make a play and throws the ball away.) Also, bunts make more sense when a team relies more on singles than home runs, and in situations where a team needs one run, a bunt is a defensible strategy. The two most important runs in a game are the run that ties the game and the run that un-ties the game, especially late. And all of those things just happen to describe a lot of the situations that the Royals found themselves in this postseason. It’s fortunate that the Royals’ circumstances happened to fit the Royals’ strengths.
In fact, this postseason has produced an inordinate number of very closely played games. It’s actually not normally like this (one-run games are just as common in the postseason as they are in the regular season), but random variance can sometimes be a very pleasant thing. The truth about bunting is that it is a useful tool in certain situations, so it isn’t without value. But it is also not a morally superior way to play baseball either. If you are going to build your team around something, make it the home run (but understand that if no one on the team can bunt, that may also come back to bite you in certain situations as well). There is never a situation in which “hit a home run” is the wrong answer. There are plenty of situations where “bunt” is. It happens though that the situations where a bunt is actually a good idea are usually emotionally charged. It’s close, it’s late in the game, and a team or a hitter that is probably punching above its weight is somehow still in it. And by employing this one weird and counterintuitive trick (don’t hit it very far!), they might be able to help take down a team that on paper is better than they are. On top of it, the player at bat gets to “sacrifice” himself. To lay down his out for a friend. That’s why bunting feels like it should be more valuable than it is. It usually comes with a better story than “They hit four home runs in the first two innings and cruised to a 9-2 win.”
Myth 2: The Secret to Winning in the Postseason is X
It doesn’t matter what X is other than “have a really good baseball team.” All other values of X are false, at least the absolute sense. Now, it certainly helps to have a fantastic starting rotation. Or a dynamite lineup that goes boom. Or a shutdown closer. Or pictures of the other team at a Nickelback concert. (Just sayin’ guys, it sure would be a shame if TMZ got their hands on these.) There are several different ways to win a baseball game. Sometimes you find yourself in the kind of game suited exactly to your team’s strong points. Having a Cy Young candidate leading your rotation is great until he has a bad inning at an inopportune time. Having a great bullpen is great but doesn’t matter when you go into the seventh inning already losing 8-3. Having a great defense is nice, but sometimes the other team just kinda hits it where you ain’t and no defense in the world will catch that ball. The secret to winning in the postseason is getting to the postseason.
This past weekend, I saw my 3-year-old daughter make this sort of mental mistake. We were at an indoor play palace and they had those big waffle blocks that if you put them together right make a cube. She was struggling to figure out how to make her own cube, but fortunately someone had left one right by her, already made. Although there were 20 other waffle blocks around that she could have used, she went to the already-made block and started pulling it apart for spare parts for the cube she was trying to build. Then she got frustrated when this did not magically make a cube appear for her. In her 3-year-old mind, it made perfect sense. The mistake is obvious. There’s nothing inherent in an individual block that makes a cube-building project successful. It’s understanding how the blocks that you do have fit together. There’s nothing inherent about one team’s philosophy that makes them a winner. It’s that their players fit together in a way that makes sense for winning baseball games. (And oh yeah, their players are probably pretty good.)
So the next time you hear Larry from the sports talk radio station say “You know what our team needs? We need to build a team like the Cardinals/Giants/Royals/Orioles” you can shake your head. Larry is thinking like a 3-year-old.
Myth 3: Chemistry doesn’t matter in the playoffs
I’m fond of defining chemistry as the answer to the question “Why should I bother?” Teams need to have structures in place that encourage players to perform to the best of their abilities. Baseball is a long, grinding season and it’s easy to take an at-bat off here or there. Yes it happens. No one can give it 110% every time. They’ll burn out.
In the playoffs though, it might seem a little strange to think that players need to be motivated. You could win a World Series! But consider the plight of the Giants as they walked off the field on Sunday night after Kolten Wong hit a game-winning home run that sent the Cardinals fans home happy. As they walked back into their locker room, surely shouting a few words that shouldn’t be printed here, what should they do? There was probably at least one sad panda in there. Maybe more. We often think about such home runs from the Cardinals side and how this will grant the Cardinals the #MagicFairyDust of momentum (Nope) but what about the team that gives up such a big, emotional home run?
There was probably a moment when at least one of the Giants felt a little bit of despair over what had happened. They had all worked so hard on that game and lost it. So, what to do? They can’t give up, but what’s to stop them? Baseball teams have rituals for this. All of them do (and if they don’t, they’re not in the playoffs), and those rituals probably kicked in. I don’t know whether the Giants are the kinds of guys who want fiery speeches or guys to just quietly re-assure each other that “Well, we’ll get them in Game 3,” but I assume that the post-loss ritual kicked in all the same. Maybe they all warble “Don’t Stop Believin’” way off-key. It’s a good way to break the tension.
It’s a trite cliché that after every World Series, someone will say that the team rallied around each other during the hard times and they didn’t stop believin’ that they would reach this moment. It’s annoying because they all say it. It’s trite because the other team probably rallied around each other in the bad times as well. But it’s important. Asking whether that chemistry component is important is like asking whether starting pitchers are important to a team. Of course they are. If a team doesn’t have starting pitchers, they won’t function, and that’s why all teams have starting pitchers.
Myth 4: Sabermetric teams can’t win in the postseason
May I introduce you to Yeshyah Goldfarb, Sarah Gelles, Mike Groopman, and Chris Correa? One of them will be wearing a championship ring in November. If anyone out there is still hanging on to the idea that Sabermetrics and the use of advanced data analytic techniques is just a silly, fringe element in baseball that’s limited to the Oakland A’s, well then baseball has become a very silly game. No, the four LCS participants are not powered entirely by the numbers. No team would be dumb enough to do that. But do they incorporate it into their decision-making process? You bet they do.
Myth 5: The (name of team that’s lost a few playoff series recently) seem to lack what it takes to win in the playoffs.
Consider this for a moment: There are seven playoff-caliber teams that will end their season with a loss this year. Nine if you count the Wild Card teams. Only one of the teams that was good enough to make the playoffs will end its season with a victory. For example, this year’s Washington Nationals, after compiling a fantastic regular season record are sitting at home binge watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix instead of playing in the NLCS. (Oh wait, that’s me.) Is this some tragic flaw in the Nationals? After all, they lost the LDS two years ago too. Maybe they’re just not “built for the playoffs?”
Let’s start with reality. Teams that make the playoffs are all pretty good. It’s probably not that far off from the truth that any playoff team is roughly a 50/50 shot to beat any other playoff team, particularly in a short series. But now that we’ve surveyed reality, let’s talk about an alternate reality. Let’s say that after the Giants dispatched the Nationals to considering the mysteries of Jess vs. Dean vs. Logan, they realized that playing the Cardinals in the NLCS would eat into their Gilmore Girls watching time. They called the league office and said, thanks for the offer to play in the NLCS, but we’re headed home. The Nats can play in our place.
We assume then that the Nats would have a roughly 50/50 shot of beating the Cardinals. Even if they lost, suppose that the Cards gave them a gentlemanly pass into the World Series. They might beat the Orioles or Royals when they got there. Chances are that they’d win at least one of those series. But here’s the problem with the system as it is set up. As soon as the Nats lost that first series, we lost the ability to see what they could do in another playoff series. We have to wait an entire year before seeing what they can do in another playoff series. And maybe the answer is that they could be brilliant, but they just never got the chance because they picked the first series to be their losing one.
I’d argue that maybe there are teams who aren’t built optimally for playoff baseball, but that we know much less about who’s who because of this non-random sample censorship. Once you lose one of those coin flips, you don’t get another coin flip to prove that you really are a 50/50 sort of shot.
Thank you for reading
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