In Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game is Wrong, Nate Silver and Dayn Perry tackled a question that had mystified fans and analysts for more than a century: What are the most important qualities for a team to have in the playoffs?
Through the magic of statistics, Silver and Perry found that only three aspects of the game had any correlation with teams doing well once they got to the postseason. The results: good defense, a lights-out closer, and a pitching staff’s strikeout rate.
After re-reading their essay last week, I started to wonder how this year’s best teams stacked up in terms of these core qualities. So I did a bit of research and found some interesting results.
I ranked each of the eight playoff teams in all three categories, using FanGraphs’ ultimate zone rating for fielding and Baseball Prospectus’ win expectation above replacement to measure closers. Then I took each team’s average rankings and sorted them that way.
The results are by no means conclusive—I certainly don’t advocate using this list as the end-all be-all—but it’s interesting to see what the math has to say instead of just waiting to hear Joe Morgan’s idiotic rant du jour.
Strikeout rate: 6.49 K/9 (8th)
Fielding: 32.6 UZR (3rd)
Closer: 2.076 WXRL (7th)
The Twins have had a successful season thanks to a well-balanced roster without any real holes. Unfortunately, their strengths—consistent hitting and good control in the rotation—don’t correlate well with postseason success.
Strikeout rate: 7.00 K/9 (7th)
Fielding: 44.8 UZR (2nd)
Closer: 1.088 WXRL (8th)
The Reds’ outstanding defense spares them the embarrassment of ranking at the bottom, but subpar pitching—especially from closer Francisco Cordero—will likely be their undoing.
Strikeout rate: 7.31 K/9 (4th)
Fielding: -7.1 UZR (7th)
Closer: 2.864 WXRL (5th)
Using strikeout rate alone might not paint a fair picture of a pitching staff with the best one-two-three punch in baseball, but it might be a wash since WXRL doesn’t factor in Brad Lidge’s disastrous performance last year.
Strikeout rate: 7.76 K/9 (2nd)
Fielding: -34.4 UZR (8th)
Closer: 2.430 WXRL (6th)
Surprised to see Billy Wagner ranked so low? I was too. But don’t make that the scapegoat for Atlanta’s rank in the bottom half of the list—the Swiss cheese that is the Braves’ defense is a major liability.
Strikeout rate: 7.20 K/9 (6th)
Fielding: 19.7 UZR (5th)
Closer: 3.772 WXRL (4th)
Gone are the days when the Yankees could count great pitching to carry them through the playoffs. Once the ninth inning rolls around and Rivera is in, the Bombers are set. But what about the first eight?
Strikeout rate: 7.30 K/9 (5th)
Fielding: 15.0 UZR (6th)
Closer: 4.667 WXRL (3rd)
The Rangers posting solid marks in non-offensive categories? Weird, I know. But Neftali Feliz will be more than capable of preserving the leads Cliff Lee, C.J. Wilson, and Colby Lewis deliver to him.
Strikeout rate: 7.36 K/9 (3rd)
Fielding: 32.4 UZR (4th)
Closer: 5.914 WXRL (2nd)
The Rays’ offense may not have been as intimidating as the Red Sox’ and Yankees’, but they finished with the best run differential in baseball thanks to their fantastic pitching and defense. Throw in a lights-out closer (Rafael Soriano), and you’ve got a recipe for success.
Strikeout rate: 8.20 K/9 (1st)
Fielding: 54.4 UZR (1st)
Closer: 6.271 WXRL (1st)
When I sat down to write this article, I expected that there would be a clear distinction between the best-ranked team and the worst, and I figured that the Giants would probably rank near the top. But I had no idea that San Francisco would end up winning every single category.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should start preparing the victory parade—Silver and Perry found that these three components make up just 11 percent of playoff success, meaning a whopping 89 percent is pure luck. But it’s an eye-popping statistic, and there’s a realistic chance that the Giants could pull an upset this October.