Contact High

October 19, 2015

In the age of the strikeout, the most reliable way to win in October is to score runs as quickly as possible

Ever since baseball expanded its postseason to eight entrants in 1995, there's been a push to figure out what teams need to do to win in a tournament that can stretch to as many as 20 games. There's no easy answer, because no single approach to the game has had more success than others. Teams with great starting pitching, like the '95 Braves and the 2001 Diamondbacks, have ripped through October to titles. So have teams like the '11 Cardinals, who repeatedly went to the bullpen early and relied on the offense to bludgeon opponents.

Perhaps the most persistent idea is that you need to be able to manufacture runs to succeed in October. It's a seductive notion; cooler weather and generally better pitching produce a lower run-scoring environment, which would seem to reward teams that can play for one run. However, that's not necessarily the way it works. Assembling a run needing multiple events—a hit or walk to reach, a successful sacrifice or steal, a productive out, then another hit—is harder than ever because strikeouts have taken over the game.

The one-run strategies that we learned as kids don't work in an environment in which strikeouts account for 20% of all outcomes and many relievers strike out a third or more of the batters they face. Strikeouts are now more common than singles. Burn an out moving a runner 90 feet, and often all you've done is given him a better view of the two strikeouts that end the inning.

No, the way to win in the modern postseason is to score runs as quickly as possible, which means slugging. If you get a base runner, you don't want to use an out to move him over, you want him trotting home on a teammate's homer or double. Through Sunday the team with more homers in a postseason game was 6--4. The team with more extra-base hits in a game was 7--3. Last year such teams were 17--8; the year before that, 24--7. Since 2012 the team with more extra-base hits in a postseason game is 73--24. You beat strikeout pitchers by getting the most value when the bat does connect. Postseason baseball is simple, really: ball go far, team go far.

The other way to counter strikeouts is by putting the ball into play. Since 2009, when K rates began to spike, the team with the better regular-season contact rate is 30--12 in postseason series. The contact-rate theory has correctly predicted a majority of postseason series in each of the past six years and is an explanation for the success of the Giants over the past five years, as well as surprises like the '11 Cardinals and the '14 Royals. The '15 playoff teams with the best contact rates are the Royals and the Blue Jays in the AL and the Dodgers and the Cardinals—essentially tied—in the NL.

Forget what you've learned. In a game dominated by the whiff, the path to a championship is to score using as few swings of the bat as possible. Teams that can make contact have an edge in the strikeout era, and teams that slug better than their opponents win more games.

PHOTOTAMMY LJUNGBLAD/KANSAS CITY STAR/TNS/LANDOVPOWERFUL CONNECTION Playoff teams increase their odds by increasing their slugging percentage (like the Astros' Colby Rasmus, above).

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)