2014 Major League Baseball Postseason Primer

The American League

 

MikeTroutMikeTroutMikeTrout

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Stars by WAR

  • Mike Trout, OF – 7.8 WAR: See below
  • Howie Kendrick, 2B – 4.6 WAR: He was solid with both the bat and the glove
  • Erick Aybar, SS – 4.1 WAR: The majority of the value here comes from his ever-improving glove
  • Honorable Mention: Garrett Richards, SP – 4.3 WAR: A gruesome knee injury ended the young ace’s season in August, but the Angels wouldn’t be sitting so pretty without him

The Los Angeles California Angels of Anaheim, California, USA, Northern-Hemisphere-by-Western-Hemisphere, Earth enter the postseason as the prohibitive favorites to win the whole enchilada.  A large part of this is because they have Mike Trout, a once-in-a-generation talent who is on pace to have a baseball career the likes of which we will never see in person again.

Mike Trout will be the AL MVP this year.  Mike Trout should have been the AL MVP two years ago.  He should have also been a Gold Glover.  Mike Trout is really good at these sorts of baseball things.  But because baseball is a team sport, he is only one of the nine people who will use a bat and glove whilst wearing his employers laundry on any given day. Mike Trout will not be able to carry his team to a championship single-handedly because baseball is kind of dumb like that.

He will not have to.  The Angels are the best-hitting team in the league by several advanced measures (including a sterling 74.3 Runs above average and owners of a team-wide 111 wRC+), and contribute enough in the field for a league-best 30.6 WAR from their position players.  The Angels are pretty good at pitching too, posting the second-best FIP in the league.  The Angels have surrendered the least home runs in the league, only giving up one round-tripper every 12 innings.

Unsurprisingly, being good at pitching, really good at hitting, and pretty good at defense has turned into a major-league best winning percentage in the standings.  If their pitching can continue to limit the damage from Home Runs and keep putting runs up on offense, they will be the team to beat in the American League.

 

Chicks Dig the Longball Airtight Defense?

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Stars by WAR

  • Adam Jones, OF – 5.4 WAR: combined typical above average power with best defensive season of his career
  • Steve Pearce, 1B/OF – 4.9 WAR: Though he is a completely different player, Pearce’s out-of-nowhere peak season after a long journeyman career is reminiscent of Andres Torres‘s 2010
  • Nelson Cruz, OF – 3.9 WAR: Whatever – Here

The Orioles offer a rather unique profile of success.  They’re unremarkably vanilla at pitching, posting middle-of-the-pack marks in most pitching statistics.  Offensively, Baltimore has been eschewing lots of little hits for more big ones.  Despite being in the bottom 5 in team OBP, the Baltimorioles were the only team in the majors to hit more than 200 home runs this year, outpacing the field by more than 30 dingers.  Hitting home runs in the postseason correlates very strongly with winning games in the postseason.  The Orioles hope that hitting home runs in the regular season will also correlate with hitting them in the postseason.  Anything can happen in a small sample size of games in October, but if I’m picking a team to crank some balls out of the park in any given game, I’m taking the O’s.

Putting together a lineup designed to hit lots of home runs is not exactly a Beanesque revolution, however.  Where the Orioles separate from the field is in their ability to hit home runs while still playing incredibly ferocious defense.  By defensive runs saved, the O’s rank second in the league at a whopping 59.6 runs above average.  Their 29.4 WAR from position players is largely based off their defense and massive power contributions, a combination not found often in the wild (power hitters tend to be extreme liabilities in the field.)  If the Orioles can keep hitting dingers and keep the magic going in the field, they have a shot at covering their pitching shortcomings enough to make a deep playoff run.

 

Death by 1,000 singles
(and maybe a homer maybe)

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Stars by WAR

  • Max Scherzer, SP – 5.6 WAR: The encore to his 2013 Cy Young runner-up performance was almost as good – he will get paid a LOT of money this offseason
  • Ian Kinsler, 2B – 5.5 WAR: The return in the Prince Fielder trade turned back the clock a few years
  • Miguel Cabrera, 1B – 5.4 WAR: Reductions in power and patience and an uptick in strikeouts are all worrisome, but he is still one of the best bats around
  • Victor Martinez, DH – 4.4 WAR: See below

With apologies to the Oakland Athletics, the Detroit Tigers are the most Moneyball team in the playoffs this year.  The Tigers lead the league in OBP, play terrible defense, and statistics think their pitching should be much better than it is.  The unlikely posterboy for the Tigers offense this year has been octogenarian Victor Martinez, who leads the league in wRC+ (at 168) and OBP (.410) and is second in both Batting Average (.337) and Slugging (.571).  Victor turns 36 the night before Christmas Eve, leading me to believe he is the actual Santa Claus, but the cornerstone of the Tigers playoff chances were not supposed to be tied so strongly to Martinez.

In fact, if you paid attention to their offseason moves, you would have sworn the Tigers starting pitching was so good, they didn’t know what to do with it.  And while the core of Matt Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Justin Verlander Rick Porcello (!?) has served admirably, it is possible that Doug Fister could have helped the Tigers’ middling 3.96 ERA.  Admittedly, the Tigers have the second-unluckiest ERA in the league (according to luck-normalization statistics) and should be about a half-point lower at a sparkling 3.57, good for 3rd best in the AL.  And then there’s the always elusive ‘Playoff Experience’ the Tigers possess, having tried their hand at the dance every year since 2011, but never winning the World Series, coming closest in a 2012 sweep at the hands of the San Francisco Giants.

There are also serious concerns in the Detroit bullpen.  Joe Nathan, their closer, has a 4.89 ERA and 7 blown saves, and bullpen issues have a way of being exposed in violent and spectacular fashion in the playoffs.  Some traditional analysts think Pitching and Defense are the keys to a championship.  Other more statistically inclined people have found that home runs and bullpen performance correlate strongly to postseason success.  Detroit has a chance to prove them all wrong with lots of old slow guys who are good at getting on base.

In other news, Dusty Baker does not have a job in Major League Baseball.

 

You gotta score sometimes, too, guys…

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Stars by WAR

  • Alex Gordon, OF – 6.6 WAR: One of the few legitimately above average bats in this lineup is also more than competent in the outfield
  • Lorenzo Cain, OF – 4.9 WAR: Ridiculously gifted outfield defender
  • Wade Davis, RP – 3.1 WAR: Failed starter became a weapon of mass destruction out of the bullpen

The Royals are the feel-good story of the playoffs this year, reaching meaningful October ball for the first time since 1985.  But since we are cold, emotionless robots, we’re going to look at the numbers and tell you why they won’t win.  This is what you signed up for.  Sorry.  Beep.

Kansas City’s team-wide 4.30 ERA may jump off the page at you, but when you regress the luck factors (which you should, considering their awesome defense) they become comfortably mediocre.  The bullpen is phenomenal, sparked by the phenomenal season of Wade Davis, who recently set the franchise record for strikeouts in a season by a reliever and has yet to surrender a home run in 70 innings pitched.  (Sorry for cursing you Wade.  That’s the cue for back-to-back home runs with the game on the line.  Just doing my job.)

The Royals are the best-fielding team in the AL,  and it’s a good thing too, because they are by quite a large margin the worst team offensively in the AL playoffs, posting a whopping -33.1 offensive runs below average and a bottom 5 wRC+ of 93.  They run the bases really well, ranking second in the league in Baserunning value added, and the combined WAR from their position players sits at a respectable Top 5 cluster with the Blue Jays and Athletics.  Unfortunately, they’re also the only AL team to not hit 100 home runs this year.

Ranking dead last in home runs in the regular season is not necessarily a condemnation of a team’s ability to hit them in the postseason.  Anything can happen in the short season, and the lineup could catch fire at any time.  But odds are it won’t, and it will be up to the bullpen to preserve whatever precious leads they can manage this October.

 

Who are they, really?

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Stars by WAR

  • Josh Donaldson, 3B – 6.4 WAR: The only real difference between 2014 and his fringe-MVP-caliber 2013 was a downtick in batted-ball luck
  • Sean Doolittle, RP – 2.4 WAR: Yielding huge value from his 62.2 innings pitched, Doolittle was beyond overpowering save for two meltdowns

Forget what they told you.  Regular season momentum does not carry into the postseason.  In-series momentum might be a real thing, but it’s been proven by computers from science that there’s a big red emotional reset button in every clubhouse that gets pressed after the last out of the regular season.

The Oakland A’s season is a tale of two halves (see graph above), but I’m just going to look at the aggregate.  On the balance, the A’s were pretty much vanilla in most relevant position player things: a wRC+ of 101, 4th out of the 10 AL playoff teams at fielding, 7th in the league at baserunning.

Unsurprisingly, A’s pitchers were good at limiting home runs.  However, they were one of the three worst staffs at striking batters out (just 6.96 K/9), which might be a problem in high leverage playoff situations.  ERA indicators are all over the map, posting a top 3 ERA and FIP, but a bottom 5 xFIP which normalizes home run likelihoods.

At the end of the day, if the A’s can recapture their early season mojo, they have a shot at running the table this year.  But with the collapse already in mid-swing, I’m having a hard time climbing aboard the bandwagon.  They have a puncher’s chance of making noise this October, but I’m in ‘wait and see’ mode for now.

 

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