“Winning a seven-game major-league baseball series is much more a matter of luck than inherent ability.” –Eric Wilson, Winning Baseball
These words frighten me sometimes. They reek of a sort of sports nihilism, of the idea that there isn’t a solid core of truth to the postseason game, it’s all just scattered events and weird happenstance that eventually lead one team to a trophy, and another to wondering what the hell just happened.
I bring this up because the Brewers locked up a playoff spot last night, and it would be nice to know where they stand against the oncoming opposition. (Also, WOOO! And HELL YES! And THIS IS F***ING AWESOME!)
It’d be comforting to know, too, that if they tank, it was bound to happen or at least likely to. More importantly, it would be very nice to know that they have a decent shot against the likes of the Philadelphia Phillies, despite the crap effort they put up against them a few weeks ago.
I’m new to analytics, and I’m still feeling my way around a field that is vast, filled with easy-to-confuse acronyms and obtuse debates between smart, otherwise reasonable people. My premises are tentative here, and perhaps unearned, but I feel like I understand a few things.
1) It’s not too difficult to estimate how many runs a known hitter will produce over the course of a season. We can tell when someone’s been “lucky,” and when he’s likely to rebound given another 300 ABs to set himself right. The actual number of runs produced may vary depending on the quality of hitters surrounding him in the lineup, but his relative future effectiveness is an attainable quantity. Apologies for that sentence.
Sure, there are streaky hitters (Yuni, Prince pre-2011, Corey pre-2010,) but everyone reverts back to their personal mean eventually. Ultimately, any half-decent manager will clump the guys who get on base together, and runs will inevitably result.
2) It’s fairly easy to tell when a pitcher’s been effective, despite superficial ERA or win numbers, over the course of a season. And again, it’s possible to predict –with alarming accuracy– how well they will do over a large stretch of games, given a big enough sample.
3) Over the course of a postseason five or seven game series, a starting position player gets something like 20-30 plate appearances, versus the 400-600 appearances they see over the course of a season. The great starters in a rotation will see, say, 2 appearances over the course of that same series, versus 30-35 appearances in total. This may leave ample room for variance, especially given the increased competence of the opposition; but where a team’s hitting prowess is essentially similar to its regular season makeup, its rotation tightens, and the weaker end may drop out of consideration entirely.
Hence, given that every playoff team is probably above average at both hitting and pitching, teams with elite pitching at the top end of their rotation are more likely to do well. This strikes me as right, although I’m still trying to find data to back me up.
And while this is just a guess, I’m far from the first person to make it. Nate Silver probably wasn’t the first to make it either, although he’s the first prominent geeky name to float the idea that elite pitching is the essential component to a winning playoff team. (Jack’s suggested that Silver overvalued relief pitching, which doesn’t bode well for the Brewers’ chances, but I’ll address that question separately later.)
There’s a couple really obvious counterexamples here. The 2006 Cardinals come to mind first, an unbalanced team with good hitting and fairly atrocious pitching that somehow heaved its way to a championship. This was the Looper/Suppan era –as most of you know— and the team’s performance gave these otherwise average starters the shine of Type A free agents. Also, Carpenter was great, Wainwright was only okay, and Marquis was godawful. During the regular season
And then there’s the 2008 Phillies– you remember them. One very good pitcher (Hamels), two passable arms (Moyers, Myers), and a whole lot of junk. I remember this feeling like a match, but in retrospect, Gallardo was unseasoned and easily shaken, and the Crew’s run production couldn’t match up with the Phillies’. Also, both Jeff Suppan and Dave Bush pitched meaningful games for a playoff team. Dave Bush secured the only Brewers win. What?
The playoffs do strange things for teams that appear unworthy by the numbers; you can jimmy the rotation to play the elite pitchers more, and shuttle the arms that have proved liabilities in the past. The Carpenters and Wainwrights of the baseball universe matter more, and the Marquis’s matter less.
Come the postseason, you’re stuck with the arms you have. And who here is uncomfortable with a Greinke/Marcum/Gallardo core (with Wolf thrown in against lefty-heavy squads, presumably?) Since 2008, they’ve swapped out a rotation where Jeff Suppan was an essential component for one where Yovani Gallardo is arguably the third best option. Assuming Nate Silver’s at all right, the Brewers are in a position to make any series against the Phillies a matter of luck and opportunity, rather than one of numbers leading to inevitable conclusions.
The question becomes, then, is the difference between the top end of the Brewers’ rotation and the top end of the Phillies’ rotation significant to give the Phils an insurmountable advantage? I don’t think so. Right now, that’s just an intuitive answer. Which is another way of saying that maybe Wilson’s right, and maybe that’s a good thing.
Maybe baseball’s autumn is when luck and other convenient intangibles turn a group of athletes with just a similar set of contractual obligations into something else with a singular drive. The odd K-Rod, Morgan and Prince gaffes fade from memory, because they just aren’t the point anymore.
Watching the post-game celebration last night –which was just terribly agonizing to watch, because I wasn’t there and so desperately wanted to be– I got the sense of a team that likes each other, and wants to win, and grasps the importance of the moment. No one feels entitled to a championship, or a pennant, or a series win, but everyone feels worthy of all of these things. Again, this is just a feeling, but it’s a pretty strong one.
That might be the difference, really, and I’m waiting for someone to tell me it isn’t.
(A huge caveat: I’m not hugely convinced at the predictive value of fielding metrics, especially with predicting runs lost or runs gained over a given stretch of time. I’ve left them out for now, but I’m very much open to incorporating them into this weird, hollow thesis statement I’m throwing together.)