“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.