Predicting Possible Playoff Success

If one is similar to the writer, one was probably quite exasperated by the Justin Maxwell walk off grand slam this past Sunday in the 10th inning of a scoreless game at Kaufmann Stadium. The loss immediately clinched the division championship for the rival A’s, and dropped Texas 1.5 games out of the wild card. As a Rangers enthusiast, one would think I would be rather accustomed to this type of disappointment, but losses similar to Sunday’s defeat are still highly vexing and no less incredulous. After witnessing the Oakland crowd’s jubilant reaction to the events in Kansas City, I decided not to drown my sorrows by consuming numerous alcoholic beverages, but instead to read the final chapter of Baseball Prospectus’s 2006 book Baseball Between The Numbers. My decision might seem rather puzzling, but the decision will make more sense when I tell you the chapter is titled Why Doesn’t Billy Beane’s Shit Work in the Playoffs?
I have a lot of reverence for Billy Beane and the A’s, but their run the past couple of seasons, while admirable, has had a pernicious effect on the team I choose to root for both seasons. So, while I will admit Oakland is a very formidable team assembled astutely by the intelligent general manager Beane, I wanted to be reminded of their past failure to boost my current morale.

I will not play spoiler as I highly recommend any baseball fan reading the book, but the chapter details why the A’s from 2000-2003 failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs in all four seasons despite having a better regular season record all four times. Those A’s teams did not strike many hitters out, did not possess an elite ace reliever, and only played solid defense in two of the four years. If your pitchers fail to retire hitters via the strikeout very often, a below average defense will not make the majority of balls in play into outs. Also, the lack of a stud reliever will often to lead to lost leads late in crucial playoff games.

The chapter also described which variables can lead to the most playoff success. One might be surprised to learn that the variables are Closer WXRL, strikeout rate, and fielding runs above average (Baseball Prospectus defensive measure). I was surprised to read ace relievers are so important, but managers tend to actually use the closers optimally in the postseason, and wielding a dominant reliever is extremely useful when used properly. Having a high K% means the opponent puts fewer balls in play, which means fewer opportunities for the offense to potentially score runs. If an offense is able to put the ball in play, having a sturdy defense behind the pitcher will turn more batted balls into outs. Surprisingly, a potent offense did not have much correlation to postseason success, but when one considers October baseball is mainly played in cooler air, the potential for slugfests dramatically decreases.

Many of you readers might be disappointed to read the following information, but how a team is playing leading into the playoffs had a negative correlation with future playoff success. Here is an article by Jay Jaffe discussing just this as he did extensive research on the subject . So, when one tries to hear a so called expert cite a team is dangerous because they played well down the stretch, do not heed or give credence. Actually, debate the point with the person who uses it as a reason for future success, and ask him or her how simple bottling up momentum and spreading the momentum on the field before the next game is.

Reading the chapter had me wondering how the Rangers and other AL playoff contenders were currently doing in these statistical categories. So, I decided to look up the numbers and share my findings with you. I will first list the WPA (win probability added) for all American League relievers with 20 or more saves.

  1. Greg Holland – 4.487
  2. Koji Uehara – 4.049
  3. Joaquin Benoit – 3.848
  4. Joe Nathan – 3.777
  5. Ernesto Frieri – 3.636
  6. Grant Balfour – 2.848
The numbers should not be surprising as all six relievers have produced tremendous seasons. Uehara recently retired 37 hitters in a row, and Holland’s slider has been unhittable in ’13. Texas is fortunate enough to not only have an elite ace reliever in Nathan, but when you exclude saves, Tanner Scheppers and Neal Cotts are 11th and 14th overall in reliever WPA in the AL. No other team has more than two in the top 15. Texas has a huge advantage in the later innings over any other team as long as their manager manages the bullpen optimally, a tall order at times.

The Ranger pitchers rank 5th in the American League in overall strikeout percentage with a 21.1% mark, trailing only Detroit, Cleveland, and Boston. Oakland ranks 11th in the junior circuit with a 19.3% mark, while Kansas City is 9th yielding a 19.8% K percentage. Texas’s K% is boosted by Yu Darvish leading all of MLB with 32.7%, four points ahead of Detroit’s Max Scherzer.

I rigorously searched for team FRAA, but was unable to locate the current numbers on BP’s website. So, I decided to use three other defensive numbers, UZR, DRS, and Defensive Efficiency. First, I list DRS(Defensive Runs Saved).

  1. Royals – 95
  2. Rangers – 35
  3. Orioles – 27
  4. Yankees – 19
  5. Blue Jay – 16
  6. Red Sox – 15
  7. Rays – 8
  8. Twins – -5
  9. Astros – -33
  10. Indians – -40
  11. A’s – -55
  12. Tigers – -62

Next, I will list Defensive Efficiency.

  1. Rays – .708
  2. A’s – .707
  3. Orioles – .706
  4. Royals – .696
  5. Red Sox – .695
  6. Rangers – .695

I decided list the remaining teams, but instead to tell you the league average for defensive efficiency is .691, and Cleveland and Detroit both rank below that at .684 and .682 respectively. Last, I will list UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating).

  1. Royals – 75.4
  2. Orioles – 46.2
  3. Rays – 38.2
  4. Rangers – 32.9
  5. Red Sox – 20.3
  6. Yankees – 15.6
  7. A’s – 13.0

Cleveland and Detroit both rated poorly again in UZR as the Tigers ranked 9th at -9.3 and Cleveland at -38.8.

While UZR and DRS are far from perfect, they are still a fine way of measuring defense, and the Rangers rank highly in both categories thanks to the stellar left side of their infield and center field. One might credit the Rays and Red Sox defensive prowess due to the creative and shrewd shifts the teams are using on a daily basis. The A’s do not grade well in UZR and DRS, but rank highly in defensive efficiency because they are one of the better teams at getting outs on balls put in play. One of the more surprising teams high on all three lists is the Royals, who benefit from having one of the better backstops in baseball in Salvador Perez and possessing three solid defenders in Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, and Alex Gordon on the left side of the field.

I find the fact Kansas City ranking so highly on the majority of these lists rather perplexing as I did not realize they were playing so well defensively. If the Royals were to sneak into the playoffs, they would not be better equipped to play fall baseball because of being on a hot streak or developing in the minor leagues together as some would tell you.

If Oakland is going to have success in the postseason, they will have to continue playing mistake free baseball defensively because the lack of strikeouts could be problematic, but in a short series, anything can happen.

The Rangers currently trail the Cleveland Indians for the second and final American League wild card position by one game. Untimely hitting, less than stellar pitching, and questionable managerial decisions led to an abysmal beginning to September. If the Rangers are able to sneak into the wild care game, and advance into the division series, according to a 2006 book which does not take into account the last seven World Series champions, they appear to have a decent chance of having some success. However, as one mentioned before, the playoffs are a total crapshoot, and anything can happen in a short series. Can we tell who will be representing the American League solely based on this information? No, but the majority of the contenders are near the top of these lists. So, these numbers do appear to have some importance.

Dustin Dietz is a Staff Writer for ShutDownInning. He can be reached or on Twitter @DustinDietz18
Dustin Dietz
Dustin graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in Radio/TV/Film, and a minor in history. He will often write about pitching mechanics and analytical baseball stuff. You will more than likely disagree with the majority of what he writes or says. In his spare time, Dustin time travels and plays at a replacement level in slow pitch softball leagues.

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