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Who Is MLB's Most Battle-Tested Contender?

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Who Is MLB's Most Battle-Tested Contender?
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If the secret to success in October is experience, some teams are going to be so overwhelmingly ahead of the curve that everyone else should just stay home. 

Of course, that is the brilliance of postseason baseball. When you try to apply logic to anything, the exact opposite will happen. Look at the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays if you want to find a team that had no business winning in October based on experience. 

But that certainly doesn't mean there is no value in having a team with playoff experience. Being under that spotlight can make or break a career. Not to make everything about the Yankees, but Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter are perfect examples of that. 

Jeter is a superstar- and Yankee-icon because of what he has done in October. Rodriguez is despised in New York thanks in large part to his postseason failingsnot that anyone wants to mention his run in 2009 because that would ruin the narrative. 

So, as we move closer towards the start of playoff baseball, it seemed as good a time as any to examine the most tried-and-true contenders. To keep some semblance of sanity, we are only looking at teams currently in the playoffs if the season ended today while sprinkling in other tidbits about other top contenders. 

 

The Playoff Warriors (Offense)

Playoff Plate Appearances by Contenders
Team Total Plate Appearances
Texas Rangers 1,121
Detroit Tigers 1.086
St. Louis Cardinals 1.067
Boston Red Sox 904
Los Angeles Dodgers 799
Tampa Bay Rays 464
Oakland Athletics 330
Atlanta Braves 273
Pittsburgh Pirates 258
Cincinnati Reds 214

Baseball Reference

Not surprisingly, the teams at the top of this list are frequent postseason players and able to retain their top free agents/lock up young players to long-term deals. 

I was a little taken aback by the Red Sox. Not necessarily because they were fourth on the list, but because they have racked up 904 plate appearances in October. We often think of this team as an October stalwart, but they haven't been in the playoffs since 2009. 

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Another thing that these top teams have is star power. Not to take anything away from teams like the Pirates or Reds, but it is harder for them to develop and/or retain the likes of Miguel Cabrera, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Elvis Andrus. 

(And yes, I know all about Andrew McCutchen and Joey Votto, so please save the comments.)

Going down the list, despite making the playoffs in two of the last three years, Atlanta and Cincinnati are at the bottom of the list. That speaks to the turnover in the respective organizations, as well as the job the front office does to keep the talent coming in. 

A vast majority of Pittsburgh's plate appearances come from Russell Martin, who has 135 in his career. That means between the rest of the organization, only 123 remain. 

Among non-playoff teams with a chance to play in October, the New York Yankees would have the highest number of plate appearances, with more than 1,200 even without Derek Jeter around. 

 

The Workhorses (Pitching)

Total Playoff Innings Pitched
Team Total Innings
Detroit Tigers 220
Boston Red Sox 147
St. Louis Cardinals 115
Texas Rangers 105.1
Oakland Athletics 104.1
Cincinnati Reds 86.1
Tampa Bay Rays 80.1
Los Angeles Dodgers 70.2
Atlanta Braves 68
Pittsburgh Pirates 65.2

Baseball Reference

Boston's innings total surprised me just because it has been four years since they were in the postseason. But when you stop to think about the names in their rotationJon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Ryan Dempsterit is easy to see where those innings come from. 

Via MLB Advanced Media

There was no shock seeing Detroit at the top of these standings. The Tigers own the American League Central, and figure to do so for at least another year until the Indians and Royals shore up some of their major weaknesses. 

Plus, one thing Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski doesn't get enough credit for is finding these pitchers who are capable of being significant contributors. No one figured Doug Fister was anything more than a back-end guy when the Tigers got him from Seattle. Anibal Sanchez was a capable innings eater in Florida. 

Now, Fister and Sanchez are having seasons roughly on par with Justin Verlander. Admittedly, Verlander has regressed a little bit, but he is still one of the 10-15 best starters in the AL. 

St. Louis is breaking in new pitchers every year and is being led by Shelby Miller this season, so seeing them in the middle of the pack, despite winning a World Series in 2011 and going to Game 7 of the NLCS last year, shouldn't be an outlier. 

One contending team not on the main list, with a lot more postseason experience than you might think, resides in Cleveland. Of the 10 main pitchers listed on the Indians' Baseball Reference page, five have pitched in the postseason (Masterson, Jimenez, Kazmir, Shaw, Hill). 

Those five players have racked up a grand total of 81 innings in the playoffs. Kazmir leads the way with 36.1, virtually all of them racked up during that 2008 run with Tampa Bay. 

Don't sleep on the Indians in this race. I don't buy them as championship contenders, but their schedule is insanely easy after a series with Kansas City ends on Wednesdaythe final 10 games being against the Astros, White Sox and Twins. 

 

Head of House (Managers)

Postseason Games Managed
Manager (Team) Games (Championships)
Jim Leyland (Detroit Tigers) 73 (1, 1997 Florida Marlins)
Terry Francona (Cleveland Indians) 45 (2, 2004 & 2007 Boston Red Sox
Dusty Baker (Cincinnati Reds) 44 (0)
Ron Washington (Texas Rangers) 34 (0)
Joe Maddon (Tampa Bay Rays) 25 (0)
Buck Showalter (Baltimore Orioles) 15 (0)
Mike Matheny (St. Louis Cardinals) 13 (0)
Bob Melvin (Oakland Athletics) 12 (0)
Clint Hurdle (Pittsburgh Pirates) 11 (0)
Fredi Gonzalez (Atlanta Braves) 1 (0)
John Farrell (Boston Red Sox) 0
Don Mattingly (Los Angeles Dodgers) 0

Baseball Reference

One thing that doesn't get enough credit is the job managers do to keep their teams on an even keel during this stretch of games. 

I mean, we are entering the seventh consecutive month that a group of 25 guys have been together playing baseball dating back to spring training. Not everyone will get along, nor will there be sunshine and rainbows every single day you walk in. 

The top two guys on the list are the only ones with a championship on their resume. Leyland earned his with the 1997 Marlins team, while Francona memorably broke Boston's curse in 2004 and added another one in 2007 just for good measure. 

This is where a team like Pittsburgh, with little postseason experience on the roster, having Hurdle comes in handy. I don't think he's a good tactical skipper, but players always seem to respond to his style. 

Trying to measure the effect a manager has on his team is tricky. We can see all the strategic stuff, like pitching changes, defensive positioning and pinch hitters. However, that is a small fraction of the job. 

The best managers in the game are able to balance everything in the locker room with what happens on the field. Of course, sometimes a team is so talented that it can overcome spotty or bad management (Texas in 2010 and 2011 would be a good example). 

Some teams in the postseason race have that. I would argue that the best managers in the playoff chase are Maddon (by a wide margin), Francona, Melvin and Showalter. We shall see what, if any, effect their performance will have down the final stretch. 

 

And the Winner is...

Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

All signs point to the Detroit Tigers as MLB's most battle-tested contender for the 2013 season. They have incredible experience across the board at the plate, on the mound and in the dugout, and know what it takes to get to the World Series.

Whether this will translate to an AL pennant or World Series ring in October is a whole other story, as we all know how difficult baseball is to predict, but the Tigers have the goods to go on a deep run if the 'been there before' factor is any indication.

If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments. 

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