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The Strike Zone

This postseason ranks among toughest for hitters in Wild Card Era

Michael Wacha, CardinalsMichael Wacha is just a rookie but he has been one of several dominant starters for St. Louis this postseason. (Scott Kane/Icon SMI)

Dominant pitching has been the story of the 2013 postseason so far. Via the work of Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Michael Wacha and their bat-dodging brethren, we've seen three 1-0 games, six team shutouts, four no-hit bids into at least the sixth inning and strikeouts galore. Well into the two League Championship Series, we're seeing history in the making on team- and MLB-wide levels.

Start with the Tigers, who are striking out a record 13.1 batters per nine in the postseason. As a team, they've recorded double digits in every game except for Game 4 of the Division Series against the A's, with starters Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer reaching double digits five times in seven games — including the last three in a row, each of which saw them pitch at least 5 2/3 no-hit innings to boot. Perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising given that Detroit set the major league record for strikeout total (1,428) and rate (8.8 per nine, or 23.3 percent of all batters faced, take your pick) in a year when the MLB rate was at an all-time high (19.9 percent), but the margin by which its staff is blowing away the rest of the field in October still stands out.

Via Stats LLC, among teams with at least 50 innings pitched in a given postseason, the second-highest rate behind the Tigers' 13.1 K/9 belongs to the 1997 Orioles at 10.0 (9.96, actually, keeping alive Detroit's claim as the only double-digit average). In addition, Detroit has struck out 35.3 percent of opposing hitters, outdoing those '97 Orioles (27.7 percent) and the 2012 Tigers (27.2); this year's Dodgers staff is fourth (26.2) and the Cardinals are 10th (24.2). This year's entire playoff slate as a whole is striking out 23.8 percent of opposing batters, which is also a record.

All those strikeouts are helping suppress scoring totals. The Cardinals have held opponents to just 2.50 runs per game during the playoffs, the second-lowest mark in a Wild Card Era postseason (1995 onward, again using the 50-inning cutoff) while the Dodgers rank sixth in that category. Not surprisingly, teams that do well here tend to stick around:

RkTeamSeasonGIPRA/GFate
1Diamondbacks200117154.02.41Won WS
2Cardinals2013874.02.50?
3Tigers201213117.72.54Reached WS
4Phillies2010979.72.56Reached NLCS
5Braves199616143.02.56Reached WS
6Dodgers2013764.32.57?
7Yankees199912109.02.58Won WS
8Yankees199813119.02.62Won WS
9Indians199515139.02.73Reached WS
10Giants201015135.02.73Won WS

Seven of the top 10 teams in this category have at least won the pennant, and if either the Cardinals or Dodgers maintain similar levels, that will make eight. (The Red Sox and Tigers are tied for 17th at an even 3.00 runs per game.)

The NLCS combatants are also near the top in terms of staff ERA. L.A.'s 2.10 and St. Louis' 2.19 rank second and third, respectively, behind only the 1996 Braves. Whether it's because unearned runs matter, too, or because teams tend to regress given larger sample sizes, fate hasn't been as kind to that particular top 10:

RkTeamSeasonGIPERAFate
1Braves199616143.01.89Reached WS
2Dodgers2013764.32.10?
3Cardinals2013874.02.19?
4Phillies2010979.72.26Reached NLCS
5Braves1997979.02.28Reached NLCS
6Braves2001871.02.28Reached NLCS
7Orioles2012659.02.29Reached ALDS
8Yankees199912109.02.39Won WS
9Indians199515139.02.40Reached WS
10Diamondbacks200117154.02.40Won WS

Among those not pictured, this year's Tigers rank 22nd at 2.80, while the Red Sox are 25th at 3.02, still quite respectable among the 79 teams that have reached the 50-inning threshold.

In terms of fewest hits allowed per nine, it's the Dodgers who have been the most stifling so far -- even moreso than this year's Tigers:

RkTeamSeasonIPH/9Fate
1Dodgers201364.35.74?
2Braves199779.05.92Reached NLCS
3Diamondbacks2001154.06.19Won WS
4Giants2010135.06.27Won WS
5Braves1996143.06.42Reached WS
6Tigers2012117.76.42Reached WS
7White Sox2005113.06.45Won WS
8Tigers201361.06.49?
9Cardinals201374.06.57?
10Orioles199794.06.61Reached ALCS
11Phillies201079.76.67Reached NLCS
12Pirates201352.06.75Reached NLDS

Even with the trio of no-hit bids, it's surprising to find that this year's Tigers haven't even been as stingy as ranked by hits allowed per nine as last year's model, which fired two- and four-hitters at the hapless Yankees in the ALCS.

Beyond the individual team performances, it's worth noting the context in which this is happening. On the heels of a season in which the major league scoring level was at its lowest since 1992 (4.17 runs per team per game), postseason scoring has dropped even lower, to 3.58 runs per team per game. That's not the lowest rate of the Wild Card Era, but it's close, behind 2012 (3.49 per game) and 2001 (3.56 per game). Scoring tends to fall off in October thanks to strong pitching in general; not only do the playoffs tend to include teams better at run prevention, but thanks to the spaced-out schedule, a higher percentage of innings are in the hands of each team's best pitchers. Unless it's due to injury or as a long man in a blowout, there aren't many fifth starters taking the ball.

Compared to pre-Wild Card era rates, it's a whole different ballgame. As recently as 1981, per-team scoring rates in the postseason occasionally came in below 3.00 runs per team per game with 2.76 in 1972 the record low since the two League Championship Series were introduced in 1969.

During the entirety of the Wild Card Era, scoring has dropped 10.3 percent come October, from 4.70 runs per game during the regular season to 4.21 in the postseason, with 16 of the 19 postseasons showing decreases from regular season rates. This year's drop of 14.1 percent is larger than normal, if not quite as large as last year's 19.2 percent.

This year's slate also ranks among the four lowest in terms of all three slash stats and OPS. The combined .230 batting average allowed  is the fourth-lowest, the combined .301 on-base percentage ranks fourth and the slugging percentage (.360) and OPS (.660) are third.

There's no guarantee that we'll continue to see such dominant pitching performances over the remainder of the postseason, but it would be wise to appreciate every run scored the rest of the month.

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