Postseason Play

It’s October already. Which means one thing: MLB playoffs! A lot of people like to predict who’s going to win, but that’s kinda boring to me (especially since a lot of the time, the commentators are completely wrong). What I am willing to discuss is what I think are the most important aspects of a team in order to get to the World Series. What makes the postseason so much different from the regular season? The most important difference is that the sample size (the amount of games played) shrinks from 162 to about less than 20 games. Obviously, that’s how it works in all playoff games, but it seems more important for baseball. Here it goes:

  • This point is somewhat taken from ‘Moneyball’. I’ve already expressed my opinion on pitcher’s volatility, but in the playoffs it seems like their variability in performance is utterly important to a team’s success. In all of baseball, the pitcher has the most control of a game. The Yankees might have the best offense this year on paper, but can they really match up against the best pitcher, on one of his good nights? I don’t think so. If a team is going to control the make up of a playoff series, they need their pitchers to either be in control (and are super super good), or are just on a really hot streak. So teams tend to have one or two for sure pitchers, with pitchers who could make or break a team’s chances. Luck’s on one team than the other perhaps? Back in the day, the A’s had three for sures, yet they couldn’t even get out of the first round (sigh). Shows how 2/3 won’t do, you need that coveted third win!!
  • Smallball is the strategy. The Angels did it a couple years back, so did the White Sox. What I mean about smallball is recognizing there will be no ‘big inning’; one run through advancing runners (no matter the cost) is more important than having to wish for a lucky home run. It’s evident you won’t get too many blowouts in the playoffs, there’s just too much on the line. Thus, smallball is used lots of time to sacrifice an out or two to advance a runner and bring him in via Sac Fly or something. This is an offense taking control of its own fate; once you get a single or double off a really good pitcher, it isn’t too hard to hit a sac fly off him. A pitcher isn’t going to give up much, thus an offense needs to make that hit meaningful. Out of 51 World Series games played in the past decade, only 14 have ended with a team winning by 4 or more.
  • What kills me is when people talk about a team’s offense being their focal point, and how it will carry them through the playoffs. For one thing, the sample size of the playoffs is so small, anything can happen! An offense can be just as good as they have been, or players can hit a cold streak. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez would know. They’re on the best offense this season, yet they have yet to prove themselves in the small sample sizes of the past three or four post seasons they’ve been in. You can also see how this is true since we often see a very random, usually a role player of a team be the one to win the series MVP award. In recent memory: Mike Lowell (2007 WS), David Eckstein (2006 WS), or Placido Polanco (2006 ALCS). So, don’t et your hopes up this season if you’re a Yankee fan and expecting their offense to get them through the playoffs, despite a mediocre pitching staff behind CC Sabathia. It. Just. might. Not. Happen.

There are two teams in the playoffs this year that seem to fit the mold I’ve just talked about. The Phillies have a solid pitching staff with 2.5 for sures (Hamels, Martinez and Happ each count as half for sures) with 2.5 other ‘if they get lucky streaks’ pitchers. Their offense has been solid all season, but if they don’t hit well, Charilie Manuel is always looking to win one run difference games. Boston also has solid pitching with Beckett and Lester being the essence of for sures. Their issue is they haven’t been very successful against two of the other AL playoff teams: the Yankees and Angels. That’s why I think the AL is a bit iffy in calling the winner, it’s all up for grabs since it seems each team has a huge gaping hole. The NL, the Phillies just look like the best of the best, with the Cards giving them a good run for their money. The Dodgers? Sorry…I don’t believe in teams who drag their feet to the playoffs.

So who’s gonna win? I’ll ask IceBat next time I see him…


Pitchers & Volatility Levels

In the past two weeks, Brad Penny and John Smoltz, both very experienced veteran pitchers, were released by the Boston Red Sox. Signed during last season’s offseason on incentive based contracts, the Red Sox nation bought low for pitchers with lots of question marks.

Smoltz’s season with the Red Sox can be described as disastrous. Here was his line with the New England-ers:

2 Wins, 5 Losses, 40.0 Innings Pitched, 59 Hits Allowed, 37 Runs Allowed, 8 Home Runs Allowed, 33 Strikeouts, 9 Walks Given, 8.32 ERA, 1.70 WHIP, .343 BAA

Yeah, over 40 innings, Smoltz looked like an aged man who could not locate his pitches where he wanted them. His velocity was there, but location was the key flaw that many saw in his pitching for the Red Sox. But the key question is, has Smoltz digressed to become a bad pitcher? A good article to look over (if you have time) compares Smoltz’s past 40 innings to Jered Weaver’s (a 26 year old pitcher who, many believe, has a bright career ahead of him) past 40 innings. The article bases its argument on the fact that a sample size of 40 innings is very small; too small to judge whether a pitcher is performing at his true talent level. Why is this important?

A pitcher’s volatility level is rather high, even for above average pitchers. Meaning a pitcher’s performance fluctuates a lot from game to game. Let’s look at Penny’s and Smoltz’s debuts with their new teams:

Penny for the Giants: 1-0, 8.0 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 2 K, 1 BB, 0.00 ERA, 0.75 WHIP

Smoltz for the Cardinals: 1-0, 11.0 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 15 K, 1 BB, 0.82 ERA, 0.73 WHIP

Now those are stellar numbers. See the fluctuation? I wouldn’t be surprised if either is able to ride this stretch for another 3 or 4 starts. If they did, it would help bring them back to numbers that coincide more with their career averages.

To further my case, let’s look at two pitchers: Tim Lincecum and Joe Blanton. One is the reigning Cy Young winner (an award for best pitcher in the league), the other is known as a number 3 starter, an average pitcher. Their ERA’s differ by more than a 1.50 (2.33 vs. 3.88 respectively). By finding the standard deviation of runs given up by the pitcher by game, we can see how volatile their performances are. Lincecum stands at a 2.86 while Joe Blanton is at a 3.86. What does this tell us?

Despite Lincecum’s status as the best pitcher in baseball, there’s a substantial chance he could give up 2.86 runs more than average, while Blanton could give up 3.86 runs less than his average. This assumes some sort of standard distribution, but you get the point. The probability of Lincecum allowing +2.86 extra runs and Blanton allowing -3.86 less runs is equal to the flipside. So much can happen in a game, a so-so pitcher can outright dominate the game while the stellar workhorse can have an off day. It’s amazing how teams will pay premiums for above average pitchers, even below average ones! Why spend +$10 million for a pitcher who will equally give up either  1 run or 5 runs in one game when you have a minor league spot starter who can guarantee the same performance?

EDIT: Another great example of the volatility we see in pitchers.