Friday, October 20, 2006

You Don't Know Jack

You don't know jack. Don't take it personally. When it comes to the baseball playoffs, none of us do. Last night, the worst and third worst pitchers, statistically speaking, to ever start a game seven faced off in New York, and engaged in an epic pitchers' duel. Sure, the umps and opposing batters helped, but somehow Jeff Suppan and Oliver Perez combined to give up six hits and two runs in 13 innings. Perez was 3-13 with an ERA over 6.50 this season. Even how they did it baffles the mind. Suppan walked five and struck out only two. That's not a recipe for 7 innings of one run ball. There's pretty much nothing about this game that any scout, analyst, or other so-called expert ever predicted. Yadier Molina hit six homeruns in 417 at-bats this year. Aaron Heilman gave up only five homeruns in 87 regular-season innings. So, of course, Molina goes deep off of Heilman to win the game.

The complete inexplicableness of the post-season extends well beyond this one game. I picked the Twins to win the World Series before the play-offs started. That didn't turn out so well. Of course, most experts picked the Yankees, and that didn't turn out much better. I'd like to take some credit for picking the Tigers over the Yankees in the divisional series, but the truth is correctly predicting post-season baseball results has little to do with one's actual skills as a prognosticator, and far more to do with luck. I was sure of one thing this October, the Cardinals were badly outmanned by every other team in the play-offs. Mr. Molina, meet Mr. Heilman.

See, that's the problem. Over the course of a full season, luck is washed out of the equation to a certain degree. There are so many pitches thrown and bats swung that the breaks generally distribute themselves within a fairly stable band near the middle of the luck spectrum. For example, some pitchers see an inordinate number of balls hit at people, but luck rarely places a bad team ahead of a good team in the final standings.

The play-offs are different. In a short series, luck can carry a bad team past a good team, no matter how wide the talent gap. Think of all the times the Devil Rays have won a three game series from the Yanks, or the Royals have taken a series from the White Sox. The playoffs aren't much longer than a three game series. In many ways, it doesn't matter who the better team is in the play-offs.

It's not necessary to just throw your hands up, however. There are a couple of indicators that do rise above the random noise of post-season baseball. Power pitching (starters who get a lot of strikeouts), a lights out closer, and great defense tend to be the traits of a World Series champion. Scoring runs is as important as run prevention, but when one looks at how a team did in the regular season, nothing about how the team scored its runs will consistently predict whether they can keep scoring runs in the post-season. On the other hand, teams that used power pitching, a great closer, and quality defense to prevent runs in the regular season are more likely than other teams to continue preventing runs in the post-season.

The Tigers are not that big a surprise using this formula. They have power pitchers in Verlander and Bonderman, and Rogers and Robertson aren't bad either. Todd Jones may not jump off the page, but the Tigers "closer" is better than just looking at Jones would tell you. The reason teams with good closers tend to succeed in the playoffs is that managers use their closers in more high leverage situations in the playoffs. Mariano Rivera owned the 8th and 9th innings of the post-season for half a decade. The Tigers, even in the playoffs, have have continued using Jones along with Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya (who are both better than Jones) to handle those high pressure situations. So Fertoddel Rojomaya is a pretty outstanding closer. And batters are intimidated by his three heads. Finally, the Tigers play good defense, featuring guys like Granderson, Pudge and Brandon Inge.

But the formula is not foolproof. The Cardinals are a bit of a disaster by this measure. They lack quality strikeout pitchers and they have no closer at all. Only their defense was playoff caliber. And yet, here we are, pondering the St. Louis Cardinals, National League champs. The Mets played comparably good D, had a lights out closer, and even with their injuries, more quality arms in their rotation. Plus, any way you look at it, the Mets had the better line up. But here we are.

So, I'm picking the Tigers over the Cards, fairly easily. The Tigers play even better defense, have a dependable bullpen, and a deeper rotation. Here's the problem with that prediction. I don't know jack.


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