Three Strikes: Power reigning in playoffs; Giants' pitching cruising
The Orioles may be trailing in the ALCS entering tonight's Game 3, but if there is any consolation for Baltimore fans, it's that the power-pitching-defense formula Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver used to help guide the Orioles to six division titles, four pennants and the 1970 world championship has been the defining characteristic of the postseason to date. That was especially in the first weekend of LCS play.
1. Home Runs
During the regular season, much was made of the disappearance of the longball. On a per-game basis, the 0.86 home runs per team per game was the lowest rate since 1992, when teams hit just 0.72 per game. Even after adjusting for the season's strikeout rate, which set an all-time high, the rate of home runs per batted ball — that's HR / (AB - SO + SF), often referred to as HR/Con, short for Contact — of 3.23 percent was the lowest since 1993 (3.10 percent). The number of players reaching 30 home runs (11) was at its lowest since 1992 (10), and the number reaching 40 (one, Baltimore's Nelson Cruz) was the lowest since 1989.
It's been a different story in the postseason. Through 20 games, teams have hit 44 homers, an average of 1.10 per team per game and a rate per batted ball of 3.95 percent, both the rough equivalent of 2006 regular-season levels (1.11 per game and 3.93 percent). And wouldn't you know it, the two teams that ranked dead last in their respective leagues -- the Royals (an AL-low 95) and Cardinals (an NL-worst 105) -- have hit the most, combining for 19 of those home runs (11 for St. Louis, eight for Kansas City).
Looking at it another way, while home runs produced 33 percent of all runs during the regular season — with the Royals (25 percent) and Cardinals (26 percent) again dead last in their respective leagues — they've accounted for 40.9 percent of the runs in the postseason. Eleven of Kansas City's 38 runs (28.9 percent) have come via homers, but it's the 17 of St. Louis' 23 (a whopping 73.9 percent) that's really out of this world. Yet even if we remove the latter from the equation, 35.6 percent of runs this postseason have come via the homer thus far, higher than the regular-season average.
How to explain it? Mostly, it's just one of those things. Based on this year's regular-season stats, the mix of ballparks used thus far in the postseason would suggest even fewer home runs than have been hit. Thirteen of the 20 games so far during these playoffs have taken place in venues that ranked in the bottom 10 in home runs hit; only six were played among those in the top 10. Weighting by games played using 2014 regular-season rates, the parks that have hosted games this postseason saw just 0.80 homers per game during the regular season.
Even so, there's been little connection between regular and postseason rates. By both measures, this year's numbers are the highest since 2011, but thanks to small sample sizes, the historical rates are all over the map, forming no real trend when compared to regular-season rates. Consider the history since 2000, the year those regular-season rates hit their all-time highs:
|year||reg hr/g||reg hr/con||post hr/g||post hr/con|
That isn't very predictive, to say the least; the per-game correlation between regular and postseason rates is −0.07, which is a very, very slight inverse relationship that amounts to a whole lot of nothing. It’s been that way ever since the shift to the wild card format (1995 onward), where randomness increasingly reigns.
Looking more closely at who is hitting the home runs, it's not as though players like Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar (three homers in 162 regular season games this year, with a HR/Con rate of 0.6 percent) have been going yard by suddenly running into their bimonthly longball. Kansas City's Mike Moustakas, whose four homers are tied for the postseason lead with the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter, hit 15 this year but has hit as many as 20 in a major league season. His HR/Con rate of 3.9 percent ranked second on the Royals to Alex Gordon (4.3 percent, not to mention one of K.C.'s October homers) and was about 20 percent above the major league average rate. All of which is to say that if anybody on that team were going to knock a few over the wall, Moustakas would be a reasonable bet. Eric Hosmer, who has a pair of homers, managed just nine this year but hit 17 last year and as had 19 in his 2011 rookie season, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when he connects for one.
As for Carpenter, he hit just eight in the regular season, down from 11 last year, so we at least know he's capable of more. Teammates Matt Adams and Kolten Wong, who each have a pair of homers, hit 15 and 12, respectively, this season in less-than-full-time play; both had 3.6 percent HR/Con rates, which means that they hit roughly 11 percent more home runs per batted ball than the major league average. Oscar Taveras, who connected for a big one in St. Louis' NLCS-tying Game 2 win on Sunday, homered just three times in the majors during the regular season (HR/Con of 1.5 percent), but nothing about his regular season production was representative of what scouts or forecast systems had in mind; Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system projected him for a 3.7 percent HR/Con, in line with his 3.6 percent minor league rate.
One thing that's been extremely random is the number of homers accounted for by lefties against southpaw pitching. Of the 14 homers hit against southpaws, eight have come from lefthanded batters, who accounted for just 22 percent of such home runs during the regular season. Clayton Kershaw allowed just one home run to a lefty in 27 starts all year, but he gave up two (one apiece to Carpenter and Adams) in his two Division Series starts. The one he allowed to Adams was the first he ever allowed to a lefty on a curveball. Sometimes, stuff just happens.
On the other hand, one thing is true: Power helps to win, particularly in October. In the Wild Card Era, teams that failed to hit a single homer are 154-325 (.322) in postseason play, while teams with at least one longball have gone 491-320 (.605). That's a more extreme split than during the era's regular-season games, which have produced a .593 winning percentage for those who have homered versus .346 for those who have not (hat-tip to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index). Manufacturing runs via smallball can come in handy when one is all you need, but hitting the ball over the wall is even better.
Jake Peavy wasn't at his best for the Giants in NLCS Game 2, throwing just 40 of his 76 pitches for strikes and allowing seven of the 19 batters he faced to reach base via hit or walk. Even so, he allowed just two runs in four innings before manager Bruce Bochy opted to pinch-hit for him and — with an off-day looming — piece together the remainder of the game with his bullpen. That didn't go so well, but that's another story.
Even with Peavy's wobbly start, San Francisco's starters have put together a historic performance during this postseason. Their 1.17 ERA is the lowest of any rotation since the advent of the League Championship Series in 1969, at least if we limit the field to teams with a minimum of five games played:
As if the lowest ERA weren't enough, the Giants' lead holds even if we consider unearned runs; their 1.36 RA/9 bests the 1983 Orioles (1.61) and 2001 Cardinals (1.64). Likewise, if we consider FIP thanks to their stellar peripherals — including just one homer allowed in those 46 1/3 innings — their 2.45 beats out the 1972 Tigers (2.68) and 1996 Braves (2.76). They're delivering the goods.
Bochy's role in this shouldn't be understated. In San Francisco's seven postseason games, it has gotten four quality starts (six innings or more, three earned runs or less), three of them from ace Madison Bumgarner and one from Tim Hudson. In those other three games (Peavy's two starts and Ryan Vogelsong's one), the team's starters have allowed just three runs in 15 1/3 innings, for a 1.76 ERA — an ace-caliber performance, albeit in a smaller footprint. While other managers stayed too long with their starters — Bob Melvin and Don Mattingly, we’re looking at you — Bochy has had the good sense to pull his before opposing lineups have caught up to them.
Admittedly, the Giants' bullpen hasn't been very steady, serving up seven homers in 24 2/3 innings, but remarkably, those are the only seven runs they've allowed thus far, for a 2.55 ERA. It would almost certainly behoove Bochy to drop the notion that Hunter Strickland, who has allowed four of those homers in 4 1/3 innings, is this year's edition of 2002 Francisco Rodriguez. The 25-year-old Strickland has just seven regular season major league innings under his belt; he split his year between High A and Double A, and has just 78 total innings above the first of those levels. While he's capable of triple-digit heat and did post an eye-opening 64/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 45 2/3 total innings (38 2/3 in the minors), he's clearly not ready for prime time.
Bumgarner, meanwhile, has long since proven capable to excelling in the October spotlight. Even at just 25 years old, he's already amid his third October run, having compiled a 2.58 ERA and 4.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio through nine starts and one relief appearance totaling 59 1/3 innings, not to mention a pair of World Series rings. Seven of those nine starts have been quality outings, and four of them have been scoreless, including two of this year's three starts.
If you've watched the Royals at all, you've no doubt been treated to their endless highlight reel of great defensive plays, particularly in the outfield. Lorenzo Cain has produced great catch after great catch after great catch, with Gordon, Nori Aoki and Jarrod Dyson generating some wows as well.
That might be surprising to much of the country given that the Royals ranked just 25th in the majors in attendance (1.96 million), play in the majors' third-smallest television market and haven't been part of prime-time October programming since 1985. Whether you go by Ultimate Zone Rating or Defensive Runs Saved, Kansas City's outfielders collectively led the majors. Their 46 DRS was two more than Boston's, and their lead via UZR was much wider, 59.8 to the Orioles' 34.3.
Individually, three Royals made the top 10 among all outfielders in each metric. Gordon and Cain ranked third and fourth in the majors in DRS among all outfielders, with 27 and 24, respectively; Dyson tied for ninth with 14. Via UZR, Gordon (25.0) ranked first, Dyson (18.0) sixth and Cain (17.6) eighth. Gordon accounted for 95 percent of the Royals' innings in leftfield, so it shouldn't be a surprise that the team led the majors in both categories. Limited to centerfield, Cain and Dyson — who played 50 and 47 percent of the team’s innings at the position — combined for the AL's highest DRS (23) and the majors' highest UZR (24.3). Rightfield was the weak link, but it was much stronger according to UZR (10.0, fourth in the AL) than DRS (-2, tied for 14th). Any way you slice it, those outfielders took away hits from opposing teams and were a critical part of Kansas City's success.