Autumn breezes? More like the gusty winds of chance: The postseason is more random and chaotic than ever. Billy Beane wasn't whining a decade ago when he said the playoffs are a crapshoot. He was way ahead of his time
This is an article from the Oct. 7, 2013 issue
A DECADE AGO, when his team was in the midst of losing four straight times in the first round of the playoffs, A's general manager Billy Beane dismissed the postseason as a crapshoot. The man who positioned himself as the baseball equivalent of a shrewd card counter—he was an early adopter of statistical analysis to build and run a team—blithely surrendered October to the whims of chance.
So random does Beane regard the outcome of postseason series that the notoriously nervous GM can comfortably watch his team play only in October. "Like a 14-year-old Labrador in front of the fireplace," he says. "It's the one time I can sit with my wife and just watch."
While Beane was selling his Crapshoot Postulate, the Yankees were busy mocking it. From 1996 through 2001 they won postseason games at a .718 clip (56--22) and took 14 of 16 postseason series. But time—and the successful mission of commissioner Bud Selig for a more democratic game—has turned Beane, like Copernicus, from heretic to visionary. Beane's observation of October is truer today than ever before. Forget the gilded idea that this month is about the coronation of greatness. With parity across the sport, no dominant team among 10 postseason entrants and four rounds of playoffs, welcome to Anybody's October, a two-fortnight roll of the dice.
The Braves are the National League's version of Beane's Athletics: scarred by the whims of October but back again at the table. Atlanta has been ousted immediately in six straight trips to the postseason since 2002, including last year when it lost the wild-card game at home despite starting Kris Medlen, a pitcher with whom the team had not lost in his previous 23 starts. The Braves stayed out of that trapdoor of a game this year by easily winning the NL East: They were in first place all but one day and held a double-digit lead before July ended. They led the majors in ERA and the NL in home runs.
Still, as noted by Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, whose team won the NL West by the largest margin in baseball (11 games) and boasts the 1--2 pitching punch of Clayton Kershaw (the likely NL Cy Young winner) and Zack Greinke, "There is no clear-cut favorite. It's not like you can say, 'Well, jeez, this team won 106 games' or 'This team has two No. 1 starters and four guys with 30-plus home runs.' An upset probably doesn't exist. You shouldn't be surprised if anybody from the pool of 10 teams winds up on top."
All six division champions won between 92 and 97 games, furthering the disappearance from baseball of the superteam. Over the past eight seasons only three teams won 100 games. In the previous eight seasons there were 16 such powerhouses. Selig's push to have teams share the game's increased revenue, especially from advanced and traditional media, international growth and ballpark construction, has fostered a more even playing field. In fact, six of the top 10 payroll teams this year were eliminated from playoff contention before the final weekend of the regular season.
"The idea that you can state who the best team is and [see] it turn out that way is a fool's game," says Beane. "Two years ago the [2011 champion] Cardinals barely made the playoffs. I'm pretty sure their business plan was not to make it in on the last day and run right through the playoffs. The [2010 world champion] Giants got in on the last day."
In their first inning of their first postseason game last year, the Giants watched the opposing team's ace, Johnny Cueto of the Reds, walk off the mound with an injury. So began another unlikely run to a title. San Francisco played six games facing elimination and won them all, including Game 3 of the Division Series in Cincinnati, when they won in extra innings on an unearned run facilitated by a passed ball and an error. So haphazard was the 2012 postseason that home teams went 18--19, including losses in both of the inaugural wild-card games. And over the past two years the team with the better record is 6--9 in postseason matchups.
IT ALL blows to bits our traditional image of the World Series as a confirmation of team hegemony. The first 65 world champions came with few surprises, as teams that won their league in the regular season went straight to the World Series. The past 43 champions have needed to negotiate an increasingly more difficult route, with the addition of the League Championship Series in 1969, the Division Series in '95 and the wild-card game last year. Over the past 22 postseasons, only three teams with the most regular-season wins won the World Series (1998 Yankees, 2007 Red Sox and '09 Yankees). In the 22 postseasons before then (1968--89) eight teams did so. Parity has significantly shrunk the gap between the "best" team in the playoffs and the "worst."
"As long as you have a lot of teams and [series with fewer games]—like the NCAA basketball tournament—the more likely you are to have random events," says Beane. "I can assure you that whoever wins, they will start writing the story from the winner backward. Nobody really knows before it starts."
The 2012 Giants finished last in the majors in home runs but outhomered their postseason opponents in two of their three postseason series and matched their opponent in the third. (Outhomering opponents, Beane notes, is an important marker that equates to a 70% winning rate during the regular season.) Hunter Pence broke open Game 7 of the NLCS against the Cardinals when his broken bat bizarrely hit the same pitch three times, producing a three-run double.
As parity spreads and offense shrinks—runs per game this year hit a 21-year low—games become closer and chance comes more into play. The 2012 postseason saw a record seven games in which both teams faced elimination. (Home teams went 2--5.) From 2005 through '10 baseball never saw more than one such winner-take-all game in any postseason.
The ingredients for another Anybody's October remain. Said another GM in the postseason mix, "There are a lot of good teams but nobody without flaws. You sit and think about possible matchups and ask, 'Who do you want to play?' I don't know who I want to play."
It's easier to find the questions about the six division winners than their answers.
• Red Sox (97 wins): The highest-scoring and most patient team in baseball is vulnerable to power pitchers who attack the zone, such as the Detroit staff. Boston hit .213 against power pitchers, 11th in the AL.
• Tigers (93): With Miguel Cabrera (.274, one HR in his past 22 games) playing through an abdominal strain, the mighty Detroit offense isn't the same. The Tigers averaged 3.7 runs per game in September, down from 5.1 entering the month.
• Athletics (96): The rotation, led by 40-year-old Bartolo Colon, ranked 12th in the AL in strikeouts per nine innings. The A's won only 16 games without hitting a home run, fewer than every team but the Mariners, Astros and Cubs.
• Braves (96): Their offense runs hot and cold. Atlanta was shut out 17 times—only the last-place Marlins were blanked more.
• Cardinals (97): They beat up on losing teams (58--29), the kind not to be found in October. They were 39--36 against teams .500 or better.
• Dodgers (92): Their offense is inconsistent. L.A. scored three runs or fewer in more than half their games (85), the most of any team in the postseason.
IF ONE trend has emerged among all this randomness, it is the importance of putting the ball in play against the good pitching of October. As strikeouts have become more common—baseball set a record for strikeouts per game this season for a sixth consecutive year—teams that avoid them are winning in the postseason. The offenses of the past eight teams to reach the World Series each ranked ninth or lower in their respective league in strikeouts. The four most recent champions ranked 15th, 16th, 12th and 13th.
Conversely, teams that strike out often fare poorly in October. In that same 2009--12 span, teams that ranked among the top five in their league in strikeouts played .364 baseball in the postseason (16--28) and lost nine of 11 series. That would appear to be bad news for the whiff-prone Braves (tied for first in the NL), Pirates (third), Reds (fifth) and Red Sox (fourth in the AL), and good news for the Cardinals (14th in the NL), Dodgers (12th), Tigers (13th in the AL) and Athletics (ninth).
"That is a small trend," Beane says. "You're never going to predict anything with small sample sizes. You've got to be careful about drawing conclusions."
Beane's surrender to October whims is well earned. In his first season as GM, 1998, he watched the height of the Yankees dynasty—"The best team I've ever seen," he said—do to postseason randomness what UCLA basketball once did to the NCAA tournament. "It was a testament to how great they were," he says. "They just about eliminated chance."
Before this season, Beane's teams reached the postseason six times. His Athletics lost six of seven series while going 13--19, including 1--10 in possible clinchers and 0--5 in winner-take-all games. The dice keep turning up snake eyes for the A's.
Now Beane brings to October an offense with power (third in home runs) that also puts the ball in play, a pitching staff that despite its low K rate, has the best ERA and the lowest walk rate of any AL postseason contender, and a streak of 10 consecutive winning months dating to last year. All of it, Beane knows, could mean nothing in the blink of a five-game series.
"We're a really balanced team," he says. "We don't have any stars, but we also don't have any bad players. Baseball teams are very mathematical. You can have a star player like Mike Trout and completely nullify his performance if you have two players that are really bad. All 25 [of our] players have very specific roles. We've got a bunch of equities earning 3% to 9%. We don't have a 20% gainer and we don't have a negative 20%.
"But I don't know if you can create something just to win a short series. If anything, we have become even more myopic and [deeper] into our quantitative analysis. As we get more and more information, we become more and more rational."
The quantitative part, the hard part, is over. That is why Beane will become like the rest of us this month: sitting back, watching it unfold, as unsure as you and I of what'll happen next.