MLB Playoff Myths: Beware the Misleading Narratives!
Even after learning how to read pitchers’ minds and quantify the crack of the bat, sabermetricians are still struggling to solve the postseason. It’s not for lack of effort: Many analysts have tried to write the query or run the regression that would stick the headpiece on the Staff of Ra, revealing the perfect playoff roster. Thus far, however, the research has come up close to empty.1 The only factor that seems to correlate strongly with postseason success is, unsurprisingly, regular-season success: While the worst playoff team can easily beat the best over a five- or seven-game series, the more talented teams tend to win in the long run. That news, of course, comes as little consolation to fans of a defeated favorite, who can rest easier over the offseason if they blame some flaw in roster construction rather than the real, unbeatable adversary: randomness.
Because October baseball adheres to the same rules as the rest of the season, we could be wasting our time trying to find something crucial that sets it apart (aside from overplayed theme songs and the return of TBS). Coming off a six-month campaign in which each loss is at most a minor setback, however, high-stakes short series are a shock to the baseball fan’s brain. There isn’t always a deeper explanation for the anguish of an elimination game that goes the wrong way, but we want there to be badly enough to invent one, even if the evidence doesn’t support it. The alternative is unsettling: facing the fact that teams can’t control their fates.
But while sabermetrics hasn’t supplied a clear and correct answer to the question of what wins in the playoffs, it has rejected several wrong ones. Despite being debunked, though, some of those suspect explanations resurface every season, which makes the last week of September the perfect time for a pre-playoff PSA. Even if you don’t have a team in the race, you can amuse yourself for the next several weeks by engaging in playoff-myth bingo. Keep an ear open for the following narratives, and remember to bash broadcasters responsibly by citing the studies below.
Myth: Beware of Losing Teams With the Chance to Play Spoiler
Before we get to October, we have to get through September, and postseason mythmaking starts during the last gasp of the regular season, as the playoff field is finalized. That’s when we meet the spoiler, one of September’s most far-fetched phenomena. Like clutch hitting, spoiling is useful as a descriptive phrase but problematic as a predictive one. A bad team can certainly sabotage a contending team’s late playoff push with a timely win, but the spoiler mythology depends on the idea that the team could do so not by a quirk of the schedule, but knowingly. This notion rests on two dubious assumptions: First, that bad teams can play better merely by putting their minds to it; and second, that those teams would use that impressive willpower to keep an opponent out of October rather than to avoid being bad teams. Spoilers, it seems, are spiteful creatures, baseball’s Thomas Barrows. They’re motivated more by the prospect of getting other teams into trouble than the hope of helping themselves.
On Wednesday, Baseball Prospectus author Sam Miller investigated spoilers to see whether they play any better than expected against teams on the playoff bubble or any worse than expected against teams whose playoff spots are assured. He looked at 2013 and 2014 games from late August on, classifying clubs as out of it (the potential spoilers), fighting for a playoff spot (the potential spoilees), or already assured of one. He then calculated the expected winning percentage for each team in each matchup, based on estimates of the clubs’ true talent adjusted for home-field advantage. After all that, there was no indication of out-of-character performance: The “spoilers” won 112 games, compared to an expected 112.6.
“Out-of-it teams play about as well as they should be expected to even when facing teams that are trying like hell to make the playoffs,” Miller wrote. “And out-of-it teams play about as well as they should be expected to even when facing teams that have absolutely nothing to play for other than keeping fresh.”
Myth: As Goes the Second Half (or September), So Goes the Postseason
It’s a baseball cliché that the World Series winner in any given year isn’t necessarily the best team, but the team that happens to get hot at the right time. While the saying has some truth to it — in baseball, much more so than in the other major sports, it’s rare for the best team to go all the way2 — it’s not very helpful unless we can tell which teams are going to be hot ahead of time. As the playoffs approach, commentators often use a team’s recent trajectory as a proxy for how hot it is, but the way teams finish doesn’t actually say much about their chances for postseason success.
In 2009, BP’s Jay Jaffe analyzed every 1995-2008 playoff team’s performance over the final week, two weeks, three weeks, and month of the season, then tried and failed to find evidence that a team’s record over any of those periods predicted division series play.
“That, folks, is a whole lot of nothing, an essentially random relationship between recent performance and first-round success,” Jaffe wrote. “None of the correlations even reached .05 in either direction, and six of the eight were actually negative.” When he looked for ties between season-ending performance and success deeper in the playoffs, Jaffe found either no relationship or further evidence that coming in cold could be beneficial, possibly because the “slumping” teams were the ones resting regulars. “The take-home message is that the conventional wisdom that a team’s recent performances foreshadows their playoff fate is generally wrong,” Jaffe concluded.
Earlier this month, Dave Cameron tackled the same question for Fox Sports, examining the correlation between second-half winning percentage and postseason winning percentage for 1995-2013 playoff teams. He found none, even when he looked at extreme examples. “The five teams that stumbled into the playoffs with the most meager second-half records combined to go 25-21 in the postseason; the five teams that played like the ’27 Yankees for the final three months of the year went 20-19,” Cameron wrote.
Like individual players’ hot and cold streaks, team streaks come and go without warning. For every team that sustains a late-season trend into October, there’s a team like the 2000 Yankees, who lost 15 of their last 18 regular-season games, posting a minus-89 run differential over that span, and then went on to win the World Series. This is good news for the A’s, who are 20-30 since the beginning of August, and a sobering reminder for the Angels, who’ve won two-thirds of their games since the start of July.
Myth: There’s No Substitute for Playoff (and Pennant-Race) Experience
We’ve come to the only playoff myth persuasive enough to make an NL team trade for a 36-year-old Michael Young. On the surface, the idea that playoff vets would be better prepared for October sounds plausible: Playoff pressure is intense, and young players who haven’t experienced it could conceivably have a hard time adjusting. Prolific postseason researcher Russell Carleton examined the issue last year, looking for any indication in the wild-card era of a difference in postseason performance among players who’d been there before. He didn’t find one, even at the extremes (October’s oldest hands or those in their first playoff game).
“There is no evidence that postseason experience (and I attempted five different definitions of ‘experience’) has any effect on players in the postseason over and above their previously established talent levels,” Carleton wrote. “The idea that postseason experience confers some sort of advantage on a player or team is not supported by the data. If it were true, we would see some sort of departure from what we would otherwise expect based on regular-season stats. It’s not there.”
Writing for ESPN Insider in 2011, Dan Szymborski also failed to find any significant effect of previous playoff experience on either the player or team level. The most experienced teams fared the best relative to their expected records, but the boost was worth only “one-seventh of a win in a postseason that goes to the maximum 19 games.” Playoff experience, Szymborski concluded, is “generally a nonfactor relative to the skills of a team or a player.”
It’s possible that playoff vets exert a calming clubhouse influence that these numbers can’t capture, but most big leaguers have methods of coping with the ever-present pressure of professional sports that would pay off in the October environment. Having a playoff veteran can’t hurt, but the wisdom of those who’ve been there before often boils down to the message Delmon Young delivered to Baltimore: “Keep your booty loose and go out there and play baseball.” That’s good advice, but it’s not news to most players.
Earlier this month, Carleton used a similar method to see whether prior experience in a tight pennant race has any effect on a player’s subsequent pennant-race performance. He found that “it wasn’t [significant]. At all. For anything or anyone. There was no impact of previous pennant-race experience on what happened on the field. Hitters hit pretty much like we would expect given their overall talent and pitchers pitched like it.”
Myth: In the Land of Decreased Scoring, Small Ball Is King
Frustrated by the oft-repeated claim that the 2005 world champion White Sox won because manager Ozzie Guillen was a master of small ball, BP’s Joe Sheehan concocted a stat to capture the club’s true reliance on big-ball tactics: the Guillen Number, which tells us the percentage of a team’s runs that came via the homer. It confirmed that the ’05 Sox, who ranked fourth in the majors that season at 42.4 percent, weren’t limited to the little things.
For a few reasons — colder weather, better defense, and a more selective pool of pitchers — scoring decreases in the playoffs. It’s a common misconception that to succeed in that low-offense environment, teams need to play more small ball, because when runs are more scarce, hitters have to try harder to “manufacture” them. In 2012, I looked into what happens to home-run-oriented teams in the playoffs, prompted by then-broadcaster Terry Francona’s comments that “as you get towards playoff time, it’s harder to win that way.” I found that Francona was wrong: While all lineups tended to score less often in the playoffs, the ones that lived and died by the long ball from 1995 to 2011 lost a lower percentage of their regular-season scoring than the clubs that couldn’t sit back and wait for the big blow.
Here’s a comparison between the teams in the top and bottom halves of the Guillen Number leaderboard from 1995 to 2013:
|Teams||Avg. Guillen Number||Reg. Season R/G||Playoff R/G||Decrease|
|More Reliant on HR||40.1||5.12||3.97||-22.4%|
|Less Reliant on HR||33.0||4.93||3.62||-26.5%|
The lesson is the same as it was in 2012: Not only do teams that rely more heavily on home runs score more often during the regular season, they also retain a bigger chunk of their offensive ability in October. That makes sense, because against a good defense, there’s value in keeping the ball out of play. A power-driven team that tried to switch to a small-ball approach in the playoffs would be throwing good outs after bad.
This year’s ripest targets for the home run reliance fallacy are the Orioles, who have the highest Guillen Number in the majors in 2014 (48.1 percent) and the second-highest of any playoff team in the wild-card era (behind the 2012 Yankees). “I’m probably stating the obvious here, but the Orioles are too reliant on the home run and they need more variety from their offense,” MASN’s Steve Melewski wrote on Tuesday. “Reliance on home runs has traditionally been a formula for failure in the playoffs,” the Carroll County Times asserted last week. While the Orioles would benefit from a higher walk rate (at 6.5 percent, theirs is the third-lowest in the league), their second-best Isolated Power makes up for much of that impatience. The approach Baltimore has employed so far won’t work less well when the calendar turns to October.
In 2012, Carleton tackled a related playoff myth: that “three true outcomes”–heavy hitters — those who walk, strike out, and hit home runs often — are at a disadvantage in October. He found that those batters’ TTO tendencies grow more pronounced in the playoffs — they walk and go yard even more often — and that overall, they become slightly more productive. This year’s presumptive playoff teams’ TTO rates range from the Nationals (31.8 percent of their plate appearances) to the slap-hitting Royals, who are last in the league (24.0 percent). Carleton’s findings suggest that the Royals’ extreme contact tendencies don’t necessarily give them a playoff edge over more deliberate lineups.
Myth: Momentum Matters
At some point in every postseason, we see a dramatic, come-from-behind victory so crushing that the losers couldn’t possibly recover. Except, of course, they often do. Last October, Carleton identified all postseason games in the wild-card era “in which a team entered the batting half of either the eighth or the ninth inning behind, and despite this disadvantage managed to win.” Then he checked to see how the victorious team’s players performed in the next game. The verdict: “There is little evidence that a dramatic late-inning comeback has any positive effect on the next game of a playoff series.” Revel in those late-inning lead changes, but don’t expect the outcomes to carry over to subsequent games.
Myth: Teams Without Aces Need Not Apply, and Pitching and Defense Win Championships
As I noted last month in a piece about the A’s and Tigers’ super-rotations, my 2012 attempt to find a postseason ace (or top-heavy rotation) effect failed to detect one after accounting for a club’s regular-season record, and the sequel this summer yielded the same perplexing result. Theoretically, teams with top-heavy pitching staffs should outplay their regular-season pace in the postseason, because October’s off days allow teams to avoid undesirable arms. In practice, it hasn’t played out that way, for a few possible reasons.
It helps to have good pitching, but teams that make the playoffs without it generally excel in other areas: The Angels, for instance, have a weak starting rotation, but they boast the best offense in baseball. It’s also possible that teams with strong no. 1 starters use them often enough on short rest to sap some of their effectiveness, thereby erasing their edge. And as FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver observed in a recent discussion of postseason stats, “There are such things as false negatives in the data, too.” Thus far, we’ve failed to prove that pitching (particularly elite pitching) wins championships, but more data might reveal some modest effect. “A lot of these things are, yeah, it might make a 1 percent difference here and there, but there’s probably not any secret sauce, per se,” Silver added.3
Myth: Playoff TV Ratings Prove That Baseball Is Becoming Irrelevant
At some point in the next month, you’re going to read that an exciting postseason game drew fewer viewers than a football game between two bad teams, or fell far short of the ratings a baseball game in the same series drew decades ago. Don’t panic! These comparisons often omit key context: Namely, that the audience share of every kind of non-NFL programming pales in comparison to its monoculture equivalent from the days before we had a billion channels to choose from (not to mention a World Wide Web), and that baseball has become more of a regional game that draws quite well at the local level, despite its drama being distributed in 162 installments instead of 16. Relative to the NFL, MLB’s status has slipped. By any other standard, though, baseball is still bigger than Roger Bernadina.
Myth: The Playoffs Reveal a Player’s True Grit
Finally, there’s the always controversial “clutch” label, a popular one in the playoffs. The standard sabermetric line is that most hitters show no consistent pattern of clutch performance from season to season. Those who do add only a small amount of extra value, and to pinpoint those players usually requires a larger sample than playoff performance alone provides. Feel free to praise the postseason heroics of Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, and Mariano Rivera — who consistently outperformed their career regular-season stats in the playoffs, when most hitters see significant declines because of the competition — but bestow the title on less-proven players with caution. Last year’s goat or hero is liable to trade roles with additional exposure.
And now you’re prepared for October, baseball’s most exciting and sadistic month. Your favorite franchise probably won’t win, but at least when you’re staring sadly at another team’s dog pile, you’ll know what not to blame.