Monday, October 5, 2009

Baseball Playoff Primer

Just a quick run through some of the things to keep in mind in the upcoming playoffs. I'm including the Tigers and the Twins when I talk about playoff teams, since their one-game play-in doesn't happen until Tuesday evening.

1) Offense wins games

The nine teams remaining almost all have excellent offenses, according to fangraphs. During the regular season, the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels had the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd best offenses in all of baseball. The Twins were 5th, the Phillies 6th, and the Dodgers 10th. That means, of the top 10 offenses in baseball, six of them are in the playoffs. The three outliers are the Cardinals, the Tigers, and the Rockies, but you don't have to look far. Those three teams are 12th, 14th, and 15th. You may not need an awesome offense to win, but you better be in the upper half of the league.

2) Who needs pitching?

By contrast, our playoff-bound competitors do not uniformly have good pitching staffs. Consider:

Phillies - 20th
Tigers - 18th
Twins - 17th
Angels - 14th
Yankees - 8th
Cardinals - 7th
Dodgers - 6th
Red Sox - 3rd

There are some excellent pitching teams here, but there are also some very mediocre staffs. In principle a run saved is worth as much as a run scored, but two runs scored is worth more than either.

Is it any accident that the Red Sox are 2nd in offense and 3rd in pitching? Sure, the Yankees have a better record - and their offense is really that much better than everyone elses - but the Red Sox are consistently the most balanced team in baseball. Remember Bill James?

Oh, it seems I forgot a team in my list of pitching staffs. The Rockies, it turns out, finish slightly ahead of, well, everyone else. That's right, I left off this part:

Rockies - 1st

So before you buy into the analysts telling you how "The Rockies don't have an ace," remember that the Rockies have a better three starter (Jorge De La Rosa) than most teams' two starters, and a better five starter (Hammel) than most teams' three starters. Don't let Coors Field fool you, the Rockies can pitch, and those 92 wins are not an illusion.

3) The postseason is a toss-up

This is easy to forget, because we like to talk about who's hot and who's a better team and so on, but in reality, there's no evidence to suggest that a winning streak going in means the World Series is a given, or that a losing streak means a first round exit. So the Dodgers are not doomed, and the Rockies haven't won anything yet. As for the importance of records and, by extension, home field advantage, I point you to this wonderful graphic. The essence: since 1995, the team with the best record in baseball has won the World Series twice. The team with the second best record? Twice, also. The team with the third best? Three times. Fourth best? Once. And so on. The 2000 Yankees and the 2006 Cardinals both won the Series despite having the worst record of any postseason qualifier (and worse records than some non-qualifiers). The lesson is, the regular season is over, and while the Red Sox and Yankees may be better than the Twins or Tigers, that doesn't mean the Twinkies can't win it all.

4) November is cold

Despite last year's debacle (if you didn't see it, there was a game rained out in Philadelphia because, as it happens, it's really cold and awful in the East during the middle of fall), the postseason is starting even later this year. There's a good chance the World Series will be played almost entirely in November. Some pertinent information:

November mean temperature:
Detroit - 35
St. Louis - 37 (often rainy)
Denver - 38
Boston - 38 (very often rainy)
Philadelphia - 46 (often rainy)
New York - 47 (often rainy)

But hey, at least there's the Dome in Minnesota, and the two LA teams:
Los Angeles - 54
Metrodome - 76, always

So if the Dodgers and the Twins make the Series, there's nothing to worry about. But I'm rooting for a snow out in Denver, personally.

Really, the issue is that baseball has a very long pre-season, a very long season, and a very long postseason. Add in the commitment to starting the season during the week (instead of on the weekend, or adapting to the calendar), and you occasionally get a regular season that ends in early October, and a World Series in November. Eliminating the copious off-days during the playoffs would help, but, really, there's not a lot to be done. Personally, I think the prospect of a make-up game on Thanksgiving is fun.

5) Go Rockies!

It goes without saying, but I'm especially excited by the Rockies second playoff appearance in three seasons. That said, anyone looking for a team to support - or to follow from a distance - this postseason need look no further. The Rockies are, in addition to being my hometown team, and the team I grew up with, a great story. The Rockies were 20-32 at one point this season. That's 12 games under .500. They were 15 1/2 games behind the Dodgers. They fired their manager of eight seasons (who took them to a World Series in 2007) when they had the second worst record in all of baseball (ahead of only the Washington Nationals). They looked like a team that was going to lose 100.

But they turned it around, somehow. Since early June, the Rockies are 72 - 38. That means they lost only six more games in their final 110 than they did in their first 52. Think about that. They almost won the division - a sweep of the Dodgers last weekend would have done it - after being down by 15 1/2 games. Without getting into all of the mini-stories - because those surround every team - there is no question that this Rockies team, like the one in 2007, has done something historic. The playoffs wouldn't be nearly as fun without them, which means they should stay in the playoffs as long as possible.

Or something like that. Really, there's not much logic in fandom, and I won't claim to have much at this point. Rather, I'm looking forward to watching the Rockies - even though I don't have time to - as they march towards, hopefully, their first Championship. Now doesn't that sound weird?

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