The Tenth Inning – Week 18 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
By Mike Ivcic
A common theme that has emerged over the past few seasons in baseball has been that the “best team” as far as regular season record hasn’t always won in the postseason. Three of the last four teams with home field advantage for every series at the start of the postseason failed to win it all. The ’11 and ’10 Phillies each had three home series awaiting them and failed to even reach the World Series, as did the ’08 Angels. In fact, both the ’11 Phillies and ’08 Angels lost in the division series, failing to even win one playoff series. Only the ’09 Yankees managed to win the World Series after earning three home playoff series. So the question has been posed, why?
There are two answers most frequently given to that question. First, the wild card has forced teams to win more games and series, thus opening up the possibility for more losses. This is, in fact, a true statement, but leaves a lacking explanation for why teams who have won more games than other teams in a given stretch would suddenly lose more games in a smaller stretch. Basic statistics and probability would tell you that a team with 102 wins should win more games than a team with 94 wins, provided with an equal sample size no matter how large or small. So despite some truth to the idea that adding the extra round gives teams an extra chance to lose, it’s an incomplete analysis.
The second most popular answer is that the team with home field probably had a playoff spot locked up, and thus didn’t try as hard during the final weeks and maybe was not as sharp. Again, some kernels of truth lie within that statement, especially when analyzing the ’08 Angels and ’11 Phillies. Both won at least 100 games and captured the division easily â the Phillies watching the Braves fall apart (and contributing with a season-ending sweep of Atlanta) and the Angels by a whopping 21 games over a sub-.500 Oakland team. Neither team won their first round series, each losing to the wild card of their respective leagues. And yes, the wild card team was probably playing meaningful games in September while the frontrunners were on cruise control, but many teams have coasted into the postseason with baseball’s record and gone on to win the World Series, so once again the explanation falls short of providing a legitimate answer for why the best regular season team has struggled in recent playoffs.
In reality, the first two answers must be combined with a look at the way the game of baseball has changed since 2008. After all, that year was the beginning of the end of the “steroid era” in baseball, with testing for performance enhancing drugs and harsh suspensions for positive tests immediately upon discovery (unless you’re J.C. Romero and pitching for an eventual world champion â again, not bitter, just sayingâ¦) That year signaled the end of the homerun era, and ushered in a new era of dominant pitching matched only by years prior to the lowering of the mound in 1969. Names like Verlander, Kershaw, Lincecum, Halladay, Sabathia, Hamels, and Strasburg became just as popular and well-known, if not more so, than A-Rod, Pujols, Howard, Fielder, Soriano, and Hamilton. Sure, they’re all stars, but the query, “when does play X pitch next?” became the most commonly-asked question of the last four seasons. Thus, in order to make the playoffs, pitching is of maximum importance.
But, as ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso would say here, “Not so fast, my friend!” Offense is still the single biggest factor that determines a team’s regular season success. Starting pitchers throw once every five games, while even the best relievers nowadays are only getting five or six outs per outing maximum. So teams still need to be able to mash the ball all over the yard in order to get into the postseason. There, however, they tend to face teams that also boast capable offenses and above average pitching, and it’s there that the philosophy of “good pitching beats good hitting every time” comes into play. Additionally, with the close wild card races of recent years, the teams that have captured that bid have generally been the ones that have played playoff-type baseball games the best down the stretch. No one mistook the Rays or Cardinals for offensive juggernauts last year, but both beat out better offensive teams in the Red Sox and Braves, respectively, because their pitching was better. Thus, they were solid offensive teams that also had top tier pitching, making them dangerous to the other very good, evenly-match teams.
Ultimately, the team that earns the best record during the regular season winds up with a target on their backs. Every other team wants to knock off the favorite. For baseball, it became a bit of problem because in the last couple years, underdogs did just that. It’s the second biggest reason, after money, that the playoffs were expanded this year â to give the team with the best record a bit of an edge. But adding a second team won’t change the fact that those wild card teams will be playing playoff-like baseball with what could be a slightly less-explosive offense but two pitchers that can win three games in seven days and send the top seed packing.
Just don’t blame it on statistics.
Playoff “Dead” List
Three series to watch this weekâ¦
If the season ended today, the playoff teams would beâ¦
Check out my weekly column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday and the weekly “Power Rankings” every Friday, only at ultimatecapper.com
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