Aug
25

Do the Yanks have the secret sauce to win in the playoffs?

By

“Pitching wins championships.”
- Everyone who has been a fan of baseball, ever

The oldest baseball cliche in the book might just hold some merit. When it comes to a 162-game marathon, a powerhouse offense can carry a team, even if it has mediocre pitching. Just look at the 2004-2007 Yankees. None had top-tier pitching staffs, but mustered enough offensive firepower to bring the team to the playoffs. And when the offense sputtered in 2008, they fell short.

In a short series, though, against the teams that played the best over the long season, pitching becomes that much more important. Last weekend’s series against Boston is a top example. Penny and Tazawa likely don’t even pitch in a five-game series, and only one of them would pitch in a seven-game set. Their top guys, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, would get the ball as frequently as possible, making it tougher for big-time offenses to pile on the runs.

As it goes hand in hand with pitching, defense also gets top billing in a playoff series. A run-saving catch is a blip on the radar of a 162-game season, but in an environment when every run counts, it means a lot more. Let too many ground balls sneak through the infield and let enough fly balls drop in the gaps and you’re giving the opposition more opportunities to score. This can be detrimental when facing the ace of a staff.

This all relates to a Jay Jaffe article in New York Magazine, which cites the research of Baseball Prospectus poster boy Nate Silver and former BPer and current Yankee-hater Dayn Perry. Researching 30 years of regular season and postseason data, they’ve devised a “Special Sauce” of sorts — the most important factors for a team in the postseason. Unsurprisingly, they relate to pitching and defense. Everything else doesn’t fit into the equation:

They found that age and postseason experience had no effect on a team’s chances; surprisingly, they also found no significant correlation between any measure of team offense (including bunting and stealing) and postseason success.

The three factors are a team’s strikeouts per nine ratio, adjusted for league (because NL pitchers tend to strike out more than their AL counterparts for obvious reasons) and other factors; a top-flight closer, measured by Reliever Win Expectancy Added (a WPA derivative); and a solid defense, measured by Fielding Runs Above Average. Examine these factors, goes the reasoning, and you’ll be on your way to predicting postseason success.

Since this appears on a Yankees-related website, it makes sense that the Bombers would top the list. They rank sixth in the league in adjusted K/9, first in closer ranking (duh), and third in FRAA. That sets them well ahead of the pack in the terms that Silver and Perry set forth. I do take issue with their methodology in combining the ratings.

To determine the overall score, Perry and Silver add up each team’s league rankings, leaving the team with the lowest score the favorite. Even to an untrained mathematician this seems a bit simplistic. First, it implies that all criteria are weighed equally. I’m not sure how much each of these three factors contributes in reality, but I doubt that they’re all exactly equal. Second, it doesn’t take into account the differences between teams in the rankings. For example, the Yanks rank sixth in the league in adjusted K/9 at 6.9, while the Giants rank first at 7.2. That doesn’t seem to be a big difference at all, yet it cost the Yanks five overall points. Looking at it the other way, the Giants rank second in defense with 46 FRAA, while the Yanks rank third with 33, which seems to be a significant drop-off (Dodgers are first with 55).

As John Sterling will remind you at least once a game, you can’t predict baseball. You can forecast, though, like you can forecast the weather. Silver has proven his research acumen, and he may well have come across the three biggest determining factors in a team’s ability to win in the postseason. As we know from experience, though, literally anything can happen in these series. It’s good to know that the Yanks shake out with historically good postseason teams, but nothing’s a given right now — not even the division.

Categories : Analysis

60 Comments»

  1. King of Fruitless Hypotheticals says:

    My baby’s got sauce…

  2. Tom Zig says:

    The Red Sox are at -14 FRAA? Ouch.

    Didn’t expect us to be so high on the FRAA though.

    • I didn’t expect us to be so good in the FRAA rankings either.

      After all, Nick Swisher is the worst defensive outfielder in the history of baseball (and cricket), Robinson Cano makes 20 boneheaded plays a game, and Eric Hinske’s defense has killed 17 men this season.

      Oh well. FRAA is like UZR and WAR-Dollars: if it says something that disagrees with my personally held views about a certain player, the metrics are horribly shitty and must be flawed. Screw all three of them. They’re just some made up numbers off of some guy’s website.

  3. PinstripesForeverDouglas says:

    Hmm, “secret sauce”? Seems like a few Yankees used to be on it but those days are long past us. All this team on is love, happiness and “blue magic” ;)

    But sarcasim aside, I think this Yankee pitching staff is definitely a significant step up on previous Yankee postseason editions. Although, I’ll never forget how in ’02 we had great pitching and a very hot team just destroyed us.

    I just think Nate Silver and Dayn Perry are neglecting how the intangibles do make a difference once the postseason begins. Yes, good pitching and defense is needed to win but I believe those 05-07 Torre teams were missing something from within as well. In my opinion, Girardi is cultivating a “rebirth & adjustment” period of how to win in this pressurized city.

    This team had lost their winning ways in those disfunctional last 4 years of Torre era & I think it took Girardi a whole year to fix this team mentally and emotionally. This team realizes the old days were long gone and it was time to rededicate themselves to capture that elusive 27th title.

    • Stryker says:

      +27 for the american gangster reference!

    • “Yes, good pitching and defense is needed to win but I believe those 05-07 Torre teams were missing something from within as well.”

      No, it was really the pitching.

    • whozat says:

      “I just think Nate Silver and Dayn Perry are neglecting how the intangibles do make a difference once the postseason begins.”

      Nope:

      “They found that age and postseason experience had no effect on a team’s chances”

      They didn’t just toss out these factors, they looked for any correlation and found nothing significant.

      • TheLastClown says:

        Age = tangible.

        Postseason Experience = tangible.

        Of course they didn’t use “intangible” factors. Can’t measure what’s intangible, or else it would be, you know…

        Oh, except light, you can measure light. But the concept of measuring light, and the units therein are tangible, that is the methodology is tangible.

        They should figure out some way to measure the team’s performance when Girardi gets laid the night before, or doesn’t.

        When Jeter heroically stomps a cockroach that was terrorizing the clubhouse, keep the stats.

        If enough inane stats are kept, maybe we’ll fool ourselves into thinking we can make some sort of meaningful statement about what’s intangible.

        • whozat says:

          “If enough inane stats are kept, maybe we’ll fool ourselves into thinking we can make some sort of meaningful statement about what’s intangible.”

          What a wonderful example of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy. As soon as we can show that something has no correlation with winning, it’s not an “intangible”, so it can’t have been something you were talking about.

  4. BigBlueAL says:

    One reason I dont fear the Angels as much is because their pitching (both their rotation and bullpen) is nowhere near as good as it has been in the past.

  5. chriskeo says:

    The most important part of this article was the sterling comment in the last paragraph, “you just can’t predict baseball” Mo willing the yankees will make the playoffs and they need to take it one game at a time and that will hopefully end in #27

  6. JM says:

    “The Boston Red Sox will win it all in 2009 because they have the heart and intangibles that other teams don’t have and that can’t be shown in stats”

    /ESPN’d

  7. Salty Buggah says:

    The last time the team made such a drastic leap in the Sauce rankings was 1996—which, fans will remember, was the end of their last excruciatingly long World Series drought.

    Well, here’s hoping that happens again.

  8. Manimal says:

    I wouldn’t call Mitre and Gaudin keys to success in the playoffs…

    • JobaWockeeZ says:

      Well no in the playoffs. But they’ll help in September by keeping starters fresh for the playoffs.

    • Salty Buggah says:

      That’s why Im sure they aren’t starting in the playoffs…

    • Makavelli says:

      I’m surprised they didn’t give Tomko a few starts instead of Mitre…

      His numbers in the minors were better than Mitre’s (albeit in only 14 innings as a reliever) but he was still a veteran arm. Now look at him…and now look at Mitre. Clearly the wrong decision lol.

  9. Dela G says:

    We not only have the secret potion, but we got tha magic stick

    [/50 cent’d

  10. Dela G says:

    Hey this is off-topic, but jake peavy will probably start on saturday against the yankees

    lets hope the yanks batter him around like they did last year if my memory serves me right

  11. LivefromNewYork says:

    Nate Silver was infallible during the election…everything played out almost exactly as he said but I do believe that baseball is a different animal entirely.

    And if the Yankees win it all expect some MLB rule change that has us giving money to other teams or somehow hobbling us in the future to make it “more fair” to everyone else.

    • King of Fruitless Hypotheticals says:

      us giving money to other teams or somehow hobbling us in the future to make it “more fair” to everyone else.

      …so it is just like politics.

  12. Chris says:

    The difference between 7.2 and 6.9 K/9 is probably more significant than it appears. If those extra strike outs are changed to balls in play, that means 2-3 extra balls in play per game. That would lead to roughly one extra hit per game and a run every 3-4 games. With 124 games played, those extra strikeouts could mean 30-40 extra runs.

    • But…9 innings in a baseball game…7.2 strikeouts in an average game to 6.9 strikeouts…it would take more than three games for there to be one strikeout difference between the teams. In other words, every 10 games the Giants would have 3 more strikeouts than the Yankees. That’s about 50 over the course of 162 games.

      Am I doing the math wrong?

  13. If the playoffs started to day, I’d say we had 1 solid starter, CC. AJ’s lack of success vs the Sox’s lineup worries me…not that he and Posada “hate each other”, but I like his stuff. Andy is a solid 3rd choice, and he’s playoff tested.

    Infield D is fine, but the outfield is a little iffy. Swish and Damon’s dancing bear act in the corners get’s everyone’s blood pressure going, and they have spaghetti arms to go with it. Melky covers good ground, but while he has a strong arm, his accuracy this year seems to be off.

    Overall, this team seems to have more of ‘it’ going into the post season vs any other Yankee team in the last few years.

  14. Makavelli says:

    Do you think Mariano Rivera ACTUALLY might be a little underrated through-out his career? While he gets his “legendary Mariano Rivera” and “The Ageless Wonder” among other monikers…he’s never been the face of the team (due to Jeter), he’s constantly been written off before the season due to age (or during the season after 1 bad outing…

    The guy is nearly 40 years old now and he’s still one of the most dominant closers in the game today.

    I was listening to WEEI on my way home from work yesterday (I live in northern CT) and they had a caller talking about Papelbon and the closer role. The WEEI guys were talking about how, by the time he’s eligible for free agency, Papelbon would have had 6 very good years as a closer…and that’s better than you can expect these days from a closer type guy.

    Mariano Rivera has given up over double that.

    He’s taken for granted a lot of the time because he’s been so good. Anything less than stellar is sometimes a quiet disappointment. And the fact of the matter is…he’s been stellar or extremely close to stellar year in and year out. Sure, in 2004 post-season, he had some quirks…his wifes family was electricuted and Tom Gordon was puking his guts out in the bullpen all nervous so he was forced to come in. I understand.

    But what are we going to do without him when, *gulp*, he’s finally no longer there? Are we going to have somewhat of a revolving door of auditions?

    Maybe, “you just don’t know what you got til’ it’s gone” (Yes, I know it’s cliche’…but let’s pretend I’m just referencing “Cinderella”…lol)

  15. Tank Foster says:

    Intangibles eventually become tangibles…I think sabermetrics has deciphered much of what was probably once attributed to the intangibles column. But there still might be intangibles out there that affect things, some might be decipherable and others not.

    Ted Williams was horrible in his few post-season appearances. I don’t think it’s wrong to say he had a “negative” intangible of choking when the pressure was on him.

    There are many examples…Greg Norman in golf, Phil Mickelson to some degree. They choke. Everyone chokes, but some people learn how to handle the pressure and either not choke at all, or at least avoid a complete breakdown.

    The linked article doesn’t specify what data they were mining….I assume the factors they list were from regular season stats. Obviously, predicting post-season success by looking exclusively at post-season stats would be stupid.

    The Yankees have shown this season that they can compete and win in those low scoring games…the 15 inning Red Sox game is an example. And there is also the fact that, while it may be rare, you can win post-season series with ferocious hitting. The ’02 Angels come to mind. I guess one could flip that around and say it wasn’t the Angels’ hitting, but the opponents’ pitching, but when Adam Kennedy turns into Rogers Hornsby for a 5 game series, it ain’t just the pitching; the guy got hot.

  16. KayGee says:

    I think the use of the word “intangibles” is just out of place. A better way to describe certain things that Jeter and others do is “Things that don’t show up in the box score”. While “The Flip” was a tangible thing because it actually happened, there is no baseball stat to account for it and give credit for. For people who have played/watched baseball for years, there really is NO WAY Jeter was supposed to be in that position on any sort of cutoff rotation. But a baseball instinct is an intangible thing.

    Diving into the stands in the Boston game, while a tangible thing, just appears as an out in the box score. It does not give credit to the situation in which it happened and the bodily sacrifice that was made to make the play. That is not a play that all shortstops are WILLING to make.

    The Benitez/Tino brawl was a tangible thing, but there is no way to measure exactly what it did to that team to bring them together. Backing up your teammates and coming together as a team is something that does not come up in a box score but can have an impact on performance.

    Are “intangibles” the be all and end all? Absolutely not. Jeter is much, much more than that. He is just a great player. But as someone who did play at a competitive level and has watched religously, they cannot just be written off as irrelevant. As Torre said, “The team has a pulse”

    • Baseball instinct is definitely not an intangible sort of thing, in my opinion. It’s part of being a good baseball player and that’s what Jeter is. Jeter didn’t dive into the stands versus Boston because of some innate ability or trait of his; he did it because he was athletic enough to get to the ball and didn’t have time to slow down. What bothers people (like myself and others) who seem “anti-intangible” is that many people (your post doesn’t seem to be this type) deem “the intangibles” as if they were some divine property given directly to the players by the gods of the game when in reality, they’re just things that come along with being a good player.

      Let’s take the flip play–it was a hell of a play in every sense of the word. Did Jeter make it because he “wanted it” more than someone else? No, he made it ’cause he’s a damn good baseball player who trailed a play brilliantly. How about the dive into the stands? Don’t you think every player in baseball would do the same thing? There are some players who can’t make that play, or ones similar to it, and it’s not becasue they don’t “want it” or don’t have “the drive to win the game” it’s because they physically can’t. Derek Jeter’s a great player and a great athlete and that allows him to make some brilliant plays. Take that Sam Fuld face plant from this weekend. While watching highlights, my friend said “You’d never see Manny do that,” referring to his lack of effort and lackadaisical nature. So I responded, “Of course he couldn’t; he’s not fast enough to get there.” This is getting to the point of incoherent rambling but I think you get my point. I woke up literally four seconds ago, so roughly .04 percent of this should make sense.

    • Big Juan says:

      While “The Flip” was a tangible thing because it actually happened, there is no baseball stat to account for it and give credit for. For people who have played/watched baseball for years, there really is NO WAY Jeter was supposed to be in that position on any sort of cutoff rotation.

      I realize this is a year late, but I just wanted to clear something up.

      On the specific play that Jeter made the flip (runners on base, XBH down the right field line) the following should ensue:

      2nd Basemen is the primary relay man, somewhere near the edge of the infield grass.

      1st Basemen trails the 2nd basemn forming a tandem, approximately 15-20 feet behind in case of an overthrow.

      3rd Basemen covers his base.

      Now, since the ball is down the line, you concede 2nd base, meaning the shortstop has no primary responsibility. What this means is that Jeter was exactly where he was supposed to be. Since he has no other play, his job was to hover around the mound in case exactly what happened, happened.

      Does every shortstop do this? Probably not. Did Jeter make a play that most might not? Maybe. However, it is completely wrong to say that there was NO WAY Jeter should have been in that position.

      That is all.

  17. miketotheg says:

    aside from having a clutch hitting/clutch defense first baseman, which we haven’t had since Tino, what I like about this team is they can go from first to third. people are running again. who would have thought?

    that first to third is almost as good as a 2-3-2 double play.

  18. Todd says:

    But I thought a starter was >>>>>>>>>>> important than a bullpen.

    • Tank Foster says:

      I think in one of Bill James’ articles, he attempted to quantify the difference in importance between “high leverage” innings, meaning mostly 7-9, and other innings. He used a baseball sim (probably Diamond Mind) and played thousands of seasons, tracking the effects of relief aces.

      The article is in the most recent edition of the Historical Abstract, and I believe he says that relief pitchers’ high leverage innings are worth 1.5x that of starting pitching. So, a relief pitcher who throws 80 innings at “Q” level of effectiveness is as valuable as a starting pitcher would be, at the same level Q, throwing 120 innings.

      I think it’s easy to see that in playoffs, the multiplier might be more than 1.5 x. The 1.5 number was arrived at over the course of an entire season, in which there were no doubt many games where the relief pitchers’ importance was very small – blow outs, etc. In those games, relief innings are worth less than the starting innings, perhaps, while in very close games, the high leverage relief innings are conceivably worth an even greater multiplier of the starters’ innings.

      In the playoffs, the manager might use the closer in every game, and possibly for more batters than usual.

      I have no trouble believing that for playoff success, a good closer is of equal importance to good starting pitching. Or at least the closer’s value is much closer to that of the starter than it is over the course of a season.

      • I have no trouble believing that for playoff success, a good closer is of equal importance to good starting pitching. Or at least the closer’s value is much closer to that of the starter than it is over the course of a season.

        That, I will agree too.

        During the regular season:
        Starters >>>>>>>>>>>>> Relievers

        During the postseason:
        Starters >>> Relievers

        Overall:
        Starters >>>>>> Relievers

  19. [...] Palikowski wonders if the Yankees have the “secret sauce” to win in the [...]

  20. [...] presented, does not dispel the “built for the postseason” argument. Just last month we looked at some research regarding playoff success, conducted by Nate Silver, who knows a bit more about randomness than [...]

  21. [...] and bullpen strength to determine a team’s likelihood of winning in the playoffs. You can read our write-up on Secret Sauce here. Last year the Yankees’ Secret Sauce score was 22. This year it’s — guess what? [...]

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