Thursday, October 18, 2012

How to Win in The Playoffs

How do you win a Baseball game? It's the question that all of us who analyze the game attempt to answer. Well, if we are being honest, most analysis attempts to answer a more specific question, "how do you beat the other teams?" To win a Baseball game, you must score more runs than the other team. Since we are in the run scoring business, how do we create a run? Other than a home run, which is the simplest and most efficient way to create a run, the process begins by getting someone on base. Next, another hitter has to put the ball in play in a way that causes the base runner to safely round 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, base before touching home plate.

 In game 3 of the ALCS between the Yankees and the Tigers, the Tigers scored 2 runs. One came in the bottom of the 4th inning on a solo home run by Delmon Young.  In the bottom of the 5th inning of, the Tigers scored their second run, which also became the winning run. The Tigers number 2 hitter in the lineup, Quintin Berry, led off the bottom of the 5th. The general makeup of an MLB lineup has the hitters who get on base well in the first 2 spots of the order, with the better power hitters in the 3 and 4 spots. Berry played in 94 games this season, batting in the 1st or 2nd spot in the batting order 64 times. Berry is young, fast, and a proficient base stealer. He stole 21 bases this season on 21 attempts. In case your brain stopped working, that's a 100% stolen base percentage. Berry began the bottom of the 5th with a sharply hit ground ball to Yankees third baseman Eric Chavez, who bobbled the ball. Chavez could not throw out the speedy Berry, who reached base safely. The official scorer ruled the play an error on Chavez, but due to the difficulty of the play, it could just as easily been ruled a hit. With the Tigers next hitter, Miguel Cabrera, at the plate, Berry used his speed to swipe second base, putting himself in a position to score a run on a hit. On a 2-2 pitch, Cabrera lined a double over the head of Curtis Granderson into right center field scoring Berry without an issue.

So, to summarize, the Tigers scored 2 runs in the game, one by home run (easy), and the second by getting a player on base, moving him along, and then knocking him in. Since the game ended 2-1, and the only run the Yankees managed to score came on a solo home run by Eduardo Nuñez, only 1 of the three total runs scored in the game was manufactured. So, it would seem as though the ability to manufacture a run is quite important when two similarly matched teams find themselves matched up in the playoffs.

So far in the ALCS the Tigers have outscored the Yankees 11-5. All 5 of the Yankees runs were produced via the home run. In game 1 the Yankees scored 4 runs on 2 two-run home runs. The Bronx Bombers scored zero runs in the 2nd game, and managed only a solo homer in game 3. Other than 2 solo home runs by Delmon Young, the Tigers have manufactured all of their runs thus far in the ALCS.  Why are the Tigers able to manufacture runs so much more proficiently than the Yankees? Since there are not enough games to create a reliable enough sample size in the playoffs, let's use information from the regular season to see why we see such a disparity between the teams' run scoring abilities.

In the regular season, the two men who batted in the top of the lineup for the Yankees were Derek Jeter and Ichiro. These two combined for a .351 on base percentage, in comparison to Austin Jackson and Quintin Berry, the two hitters at the top of the Tigers order, who combined for a .354 on base percentage. So, these two teams' table setters get on base at similar clips. This gives the men hitting in the 3-5 spots the about the same number of opportunities to knock them in, and thus score runs. For some perspective, a .350 on base percentage stands somewhere between above average and great. In fact, in comparison to the American League average this season (.320), both the Tigers and Yankees 1 and 2 hitters got on base much more often than the rest of the AL.

We have established that the Tigers and Yankees are able to get on base, thus completing the first step in run creation. What about step 2? The meat of the orders must find ways to drive in the runs on base, otherwise a high on base percentage at the top of the order means very little. Unlike the Tigers, who bat ted Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the 3 and 4 holes respectively every game this season, the Yankees used three hitters to fill the two spots. Robinson Cano, Mark Teixera, and Alex Rodriguez shared responsibilities of the third and fourth spots in the Yankee order, shifting from one to the other, depending on health and the handedness of the opposing pitcher. Cano, Rodriguez, and Teixera combined for a .485 slugging percentage during 2012. This was .07 percentage points higher than the American League average (.411). On the other hand, Cabrera and Fielder slugged a ridiculous .567 this season, .156 percentage points above the league average. In fact, the Tigers duo out slugged the Yankees trio by .118 slugging percentage points. So, while it is safe to say both of these teams get on base equally as well as the other, the Tigers severely out slug the Yankees when it comes to knocking in runs. While rbis provide us with less of the story than other statistics, it is important to note that Cabrera and Fielder combined for 247 runs batted in while the Yankees threesome combined for 235.

Why have the Tigers been winning games so much more easily in the playoffs than over the course of the regular season? Pitching has to be the first answer. The Tigers have the best pitcher in baseball, Justin Verlander, and their other starters have stepped up to give their offense a chance every night. On the other hand, the Yankees haven't pitched as badly as we might think. In game 3, Phil Hughes, David Phelps, and the rest of New York's bullpen combined to give up only 2 runs and 12 base runners. So, in a game in which both teams pitched well, the Tigers may have had the advantage because their sluggers hit knock in runs more efficiently than the Yankees.

While this analysis works well with just these two teams, let's open it up a bit. If we include the other two remaining playoff teams, the Cardinals and the Giants, the analysis becomes more fascinating. The top of the Cardinals lineup consists of Jon Jay and Carlos Beltran. With Beltran's recent knee injury, it could also include Matt Carpenter, so I included him in the calculations. During the regular season the Cardinals hitters in the top of the lineup combined to get on base at a .353 clip. The Tigers' hitters did so at .354, the Yankees at .351, and the Giants' hitters at .362. All of these OBPs are very similar with a range of only .011.

What about the guys hitting behind them, charged with the job of completing the process of creating a run? For this, I used a statistic called wOBA. It stands for weighted on base average. According to the explanation on,"Weighted On-Base Average combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value." "The Cardinals hitters, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Allen Craig, combined for a .388 wOBA with runners on base, while the Giants hitters, Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey, and Hunter Pence, combined for a .369 wOBA. In the AL, the Yankees three middle of the lineup hitters combined for a .358 wOBA and the Tigers dynamic duo combined for a .407 wOBA with runners on base. Now, if we combine the Tigers' 5th hitter, Delmon Young, into this equation we get a wOBA of .369, but I'm excluding Young because unlike the other teams involved, the Tigers' batting order remained frighteningly stagnant, with Fielder playing all 162 games in the clean up spot and Cabrera batting third 161 out of 162 games this year. The other teams all move their hitters around, thus I used the three hitters who hit most often in the 3 and 4 holes in this analysis.

Look at those numbers. The Tigers get on base at about the same clip as the other four teams, but the production they get from the 3 and 4 spots gives them a distinct advantage. They capitalize more often when the top of their order gets on base than the other three teams left in the post season. The second highest wOBA came from St. Louis, which might also shed some light on why the Cardinals are such a consistently solid playoff team. Oftentimes because teams only play a few games per series these numbers do not have a chance to make a difference, but the Cardinals and Tigers seem to be using them to their advantage. All four teams have pitched well, keeping games close, and in close games, it seems like the Cardinals and Tigers have the advantage.

Many thought that signing Prince Fielder would help the Tigers, but that they spent too much money for too many years. This may be true, but Dave Dombrowski knew his team better than anyone else. He must have seen that by adding such a productive hitter, especially with runners in base, to complement Cabrera, that if his team, despite squeaking into the playoffs, would be the most prepared playoff team.

Scoring a run isn't easy. Home runs happen, but more often, a team working together produces the bulk of the runs. Speedy guys get on base, doing their best to get into scoring position, waiting for the boppers behind them to do whatever it takes to get them home. No one knows who will win the NLCS, but the Tigers are prime to win the ALCS as they head into game 4 up 3-0. If the Tigers and Cardinals meet in the World Series, it will not only be a rematch of 2006, it may also be one of the best World Series in we have seen, as these two teams are so evenly matched, both in preventing runs, and more importantly, in producing them.

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