Each autumn somewhere in-between September giving way to October, a very curious metamorphosis occurs after six full months of baseball. Sure, suddenly there are now only 10 teams vying for the World Series title, no longer 30.
Yet, when you look closer, the interesting wrinkle is that there is a different game being played. It's still baseball all right, just a much, much different kind of baseball. You can call it "small ball", you can call it playing the old-fashioned way or you can just call it, winning baseball.
As the New York Yankees and powerful, slugging teams like the Texas Rangers have discovered these past several seasons, teams with average pitching staffs and hulking sluggers aren't always the teams that win the World Series.
The teams that win the World Series hit well with runners in scoring position (RISP) and advance runners over into scoring position. Their starting pitchers keep them in games. Their relief pitching is solid. Most importantly, their hitters get on base when they need to and advance quickly along the base paths.
Too often lost in today's game of "Moneyball", Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane would tell you, is that all the money in the world can't buy you a championship. It will sure help you get close though. Money can buy you several of the game's best sluggers.
Money can also give you the best possible leverage when looking to acquire prized pitchers in the offseason. But ultimately, while it may get you to the postseason, it will unequivocally not help you win a short series if you can't get the big hits.
The New York Yankees have held the highest payroll in Major League Baseball since the start of the 1999 season. They've reached the playoffs every year but one (2008) since the start of the 1995 season. But they have only one World Series title since the start of the 2001 season.
The Yankees haven't quite had "it" for many of those seasons. "It" is that intangible quality that championship teams seem to invariably have. When the Yankees won four-of-five World Series titles in the late 1990s, the team was perfectly constructed
Good starting pitching during the regular season that escalated to great in the postseason, airtight relief pitching, some power hitters, some contact hitters—all timely hitters.
Some of that is luck, some of it is great scouting and some of it is just good baseball instincts. The 2009 Yankees did, however, have those things. Alex Rodriguez hit in the postseason like few players ever have, to the tune of a 1.308 OPS.
The 2010 San Francisco Giants had the same things and likewise, the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals. All of those teams had some great players. But they all also had players during the regular season that didn't amass statistics that sabermetricians everywhere would ogle over.
Yet these are the players that got the job done in the clutch. David Freese, for the Cardinals, and Cody Ross, for the Giants, did not enjoy huge seasons in 2011 and 2010 respectively, yet emerged as potent hitters when the pressure was most intense.
How does one make sense of that?
Many will ascribe it to aforementioned luck, though it's hard to not believe that some players simply perform better under pressure than others. Some teams, likewise, perform better in short series because they are guided by managers and players that know that a bunt, hit and run or stolen base at a key juncture may make the ultimate difference.
Great sluggers and home run hitters will sure help you get through the regular season. In fact, it's imperative to have at least a couple big-time hitters to help get you to the playoffs. But in the postseason, hitters that can advance a baserunner from second to third base in a key spot become nearly as valuable.
In the postseason, all the little things matter because the scouting is so good and the other team's pitching is generally capable of shutting down even the most dangerous lineups on any given night.
Gone are the Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals and other punching bags that teams can rack up huge wins and stats against during sleepy August days. Gone are the easy home runs to get back into games.
Sure, clutch home runs make a big difference. But come October, the scrappy base hits, walks, sacrifice bunts and high choppers that you need to bust your tail on to beat out at first base are the new chic. Those are the plays that help you win. Those are the things that make all the difference in the playoffs.