Nate Silver and Dayn Perry conducted a study, entitled “Why Doesn’t Billy Beane’s S*** Work in the Playoffs?,” which can be found in the book “Baseball Between The Numbers” (released earlier this year by the Baseball Prospectus Team of Experts) that finds three “fundamental and direct relationship” variables for a baseball team’s post-season success.
The three variables for post-season success stated in the study are:
• Closer’s performance
• Pitcher strikeout rate
The analysis for this study was concluded prior to the 2006 World Series. Nonetheless, hindsight now affords us an opportunity to determine if this year’s eventual World Champion St. Louis Cardinals squad had these three variables.
Did the Cardinals have a standout closer? Check.
Whereas the Cards’ regular season closer, Jason Isringhausen, was about a league-average performer last season (in terms of his relative pitching performance), Adam Wainwright was a better overall hurler than Isringhausen and Adam’s “stuff” was electric in this post-season. Thanks to Wainwright replacing Isringhausen as the Redbirds’ closer this October, St. Louis gets a passing grade here for having a standout pitcher to close their contests.
Did the Cardinals staff strikeout batters at a high rate? Ah, well, no and, yet, actually yes. So, this is a check, albeit requiring some qualification, as well.
Thanks to pitchers like Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver, Mark Mulder, and Sidney Ponson getting work for the Cards this year, St. Louis’ overall team strikeout per 9 innings pitched rate (as compared to the league average) was poor. However, if you examine a large slice of the cadre of pitchers that the Cardinals featured in the post-season – specifically Tyler Johnson, the aforementioned Wainwright, Josh Kinney, Anthony Reyes, and Chris Carpenter – you will see that (outside of Suppan and Weaver) St. Louis often relied on above-average strikeout pitchers to do some of the heavy lifting for them in this post-season.
OK, maybe this is not a hard “yes” for a “check.” But, at the worst, it’s a “push” that allows for a passing grade in this category.
Lastly, did the Cardinals have a good defense in 2006? Check, check, and more checks.
Yes, the team St. Louis featured defensively in the field was leather-savvy last year. According to the plus/minus system developed by Baseball Information Systems (and as featured in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2007) the Cardinals had the second best overall team defense in the National League last season – and, in all of baseball, only the Padres, Blue Jays, and Mariners were better than St. Louis’ overall team defense.
Therefore, in summary, the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals were another feather in the cap for the Silver/Perry theory regarding these three variables for post-season success.
This confirmation leads me to wonder how one can combat this three-headed watchdog of closer/whiffs/and defense that guards the entrance to the land of World Series rings.
If a team you are facing has a dominant closer, you can do one of four things.
First, you could ensure that you have a large lead late in every game – making the other team’s stud closer obsolete. But, that is certainly easier said than done. Or, if you are the Jeff Gillooly-type then you could contract someone to deliver said closer a box of canolis that are laced with Exlax before each game. However, an astute team trainer armed with Imodium would be able to counter-attack that plan. Another alternative would be to pray to a higher power to deliver a form of divine intervention at a key moment against a tough closer – say, like, throwing away a Damian Miller bunt at the wrong time. Still, the baseball gods can be fickle at times and they only seem to answer the prayers of the winning teams. Lastly, there is the fourth option – which is to just resign yourself to the fact that there’s not much you can do when the other team in the post-season has a great closer. This is the “Two tears in a bucket, mother [bleep] it” approach. And, it probably is the most practical stance one can assume against this variable.
Moving along, if a post-season opponent has great defensive ability, what can you do to negate this strength?
Outside of hitting every pitch over the wall for a homerun or stationing snipers in the scoreboard and/or landmines on the field of play, there is little a team can do to prevent great plays from being turned against them in the post-season. Just as it was the case with coping with a great closer, here, you have to play the game and allow the ball to bounce – and if you are lucky then you might get the bear before it gets you.
Finally, what can a team do in the post-season to combat pitchers with above-average ability to produce strikeouts?
Conventional wisdom suggests that having as many high-contact batters in your line-up as possible would be a prophylactic method to neutralize strikeout pitchers that you may face in the playoffs. Then again, is this scheme well-founded and applicable? To be candid, I was not sure. For that reason, I decided to look for help.
First, I turned to Google. Unfortunately, after several hours of searching I was unable to find any studies published on-line which addressed this question. Next, I reached out to David Pinto of BaseballMusings.com – hoping that the records in his Day By Day Database (which contains batter versus pitcher match-ups that date back to 2000) may be able to assist with the question of “If hitters, for the most part, control the ride on batted ball types over pitchers and their tendencies, how does it work for contact hitters and strikeout pitchers? Who wins that battle – in the non-batted ball contest?” And, garnering much appreciation from me, David was able to share the following discovery.
Using his Day By Day Database, Pinto selected 20 low-strikeout hitters and 20 high-strikeout pitchers. From this population, Pinto calculated strikeout percentages (100*K/PA) for various combinations:
From these findings, David Pinto concluded that “The best” contact hitters versus “the best” strikeout-pitchers “comparison resulted in 403 K in 3438 plate appearances.” And, that “It certainly appears that the contact hitters ‘win’ the battle against the strikeout pitchers.”
This knowledge in hand, it appears there is something that teams can do in the post-season to offset one of the key variables for post-season success (as identified by Silver Perry). Having a line-up constructed with batters who offer good contact skills seems to be a plus come October.
Right about now, those who are familiar with the study of Run Expectancy are probably throwing up their arms (or at least making a face) at the suggestion that having contact hitters matter in the post-season since Run Expectancy tables tells us that “going down on strikes” is merely another vanilla form of being retired – and that the “K” was no better or worse, for the most part, than any other way of being retired as a batter.
To that faction, I would offer the reminder that strikeout-pitchers are much less reliant upon their defense to convert batted balls into outs. This is their success edge. And, in part, this is how strikeout-pitchers somewhat mitigate the “luck” factor that comes into play during short-series outcomes. Further, I would ask the question: If pitchers with better than average strikeout frequencies are beneficial towards post-season success then why not would batters who can defuse that pitching skill be as advantageous or greater?
In the spirit of full-disclosure, I would be remiss if I did not share that this concept of the benefits of having a contact-oriented offensive in the post-season has been an item on my mind since the 2004 season. And, my sundry approaches (shared on-line) to prove this theory during this time were not met with open arms – either because my presentations were lacking and/or it was just something that people did not want to consider.
As a Yankees fan, perhaps the 2003 World Series was the reason why the contact issue began to vex me? (And this led to me starting to try to connect the dots?) Specifically, I want to point to Game 4 of that Series – which was a key game and turning point in that Fall Classic.
In that Game 4, in the top of the 2nd inning, Bernie Williams, Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada each singled for the Yankees to load the bases with no outs. The next three hitters to follow were Karim Garcia, Aaron Boone and Roger Clemens. Karim Garcia struck out swinging. Boone later had a sacrifice fly and Clemens grounded out to end the inning. Clearly, the critical malfunction for the Yankees here was Karim Garcia’s lack of production via his out in the inning. With the pitcher due up third, in this spot, it is essential for Garcia to make contact to try and drive in a run, even if it comes via an out.
Further, in the top of the 11th inning, the Yankees loaded the bases with one out (when the game score was tied at three). Aaron Boone was at the plate with seldom used back-up catcher John Flaherty on deck. In a spot similar to the one Karim Garcia had in the 2nd, where contact was a must, Boone struck out swinging. Flaherty later popped up to end the inning and the Yankees did not score. Once again, this was an unproductive out for the Yankees in a significant moment.
But, that was then and this is now. Given what Nate Silver and Dayn Perry have since found to be true in regard to strikeout-pitchers helping towards success in October – along with the recent statistics graciously provided by David Pinto that suggest contact-hitters can remedy strikeout-pitchers – perhaps the time has come to consider the importance of avoiding strikeouts, on offense, with respect to post-season success?
At the least, it’s less messy than the Exlax, snipers and landmines route.