Over at Light Up That Halo!, I want to start a weekly series inspired by Baseball Between the Numbers. The book's final chapter, "Why Doesn't Billy Beane's Shit Work in the Playoffs?" was inspired by a quote from A's general manager Billy Beane in Moneyball. When asked why the Oakland A's, despite their string of regular season successes, have had such trouble in the playoffs, Beane proclaimed that the playoffs are a crapshoot. The A's of the lastdecade have not been defective, but merely the victims of bad luck.
While we've long since derided that concept as typical Fremont whining, especially after the A's were swept in last season's ALCS, Beane is essentially correct. There may be no better proof for that fact than the Cardinals' World Series victory last season despite an 83-win season. While admitting that, in some part, luck determines playoff outcomes, Baseball Prospectus authors Nate Silver and Dayn Perry decided to determine what factors, if any, correlate with playoff success. They found three possessing solid correlations, and interestingly none involve the offense.
- Closer WXRL - Because the postseason inherently self-selects the best teams, the outcomes of playoff games are often close. Thus, a club's ability to hand even the slimmest of leads to a dominant closer can give it a needed edge over a potent opponent. However, they found that it is only the closer that really matters; the performance of the bullpen as a whole had a much weaker correlation with playoff success.
- Pitching Staff Strikeout Rate - While Silver and Perry actually found that a pitching staff's batting average against has a solid correlation with postseason success, they chose to measure the staff's strikeout rate instead. While a groundout or flyout is just creates the same outcome as a strikeout, they argue (with some proof) that good hitters have an ability to take advantage of finesse pitchers. Because playoff teams tend to have more quality hitters than the average team, a club blessed with power, strikeout-oriented pitchers will be able to neutralize that advantage and pacify even playoff-caliber offenses.
- Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) - FRAA is a measure of how many runs a defense prevents over the league average, adjusted for stuff like ballpark factors. Silver and Perry argue that a team with both strikeout pitchers and an efficient defense will be very difficult to score against. In order to get a hit against such a team, a hitter must first be able to hit a fair ball off the pitcher, and second, hit the ball past the defense. They argue that defense matters in the playoffs because playoff teams have more quality hitters who can hit the ball harder and put more pressure on the defense.
- While I realize that I may be getting ahead of myself--the season is barely half over and the division is far from won--but I think this season's team has as good a chance to make the postseason as any since the destined 2002 squad. So, let's see how the Halos do:
Closer WXRL: Frankie Rodriguez, 2.267 wins, 7th among closers
Strikeout Rate: 7.04 K/9, 6th in the majors
FRAA: 18 runs, 6th in the majors
As expected, the Angels' pitching staff has been pretty effective, ranking among the top 10 in K/9. This success comes despite the struggles suffered by Halo hurlers, most notably at the back end of the rotation and the front end of the bullpen. The defense is much improved over last year's squad, which had an FRAA of 9 runs. The source of this improvement is likely due to greater position stability, especially at center field (Matthews) and first base (Kotchman). The most perplexing thing to consider is Frankie's relatively low WXRL ranking. Last year K-Rod was first among closers with 7.301 wins added. Can his statistics explain the difference?
ERA WHIP DIPS K/9 BB/9 BAA BIPA LVG
2006 1.73 1.10 2.57 12.10 3.45 .197 .275 2.00
2007 2.27 1.17 2.41 12.34 3.52 .211 .301 1.41
Frankie's current WHIP and ERA are higher than last season, and he is a bit more hittable this year. Oddly, he is striking out more batters while walking more of them. However, Frankie may be a victim of bad luck, as an average BIPA/BABIP is .290. Most interestingly though, it appears that he has been used in less important situations than last year, as his leverage score is significantly lower. Perhaps the Angels, enjoying a more potent offense compared with last year's squad, have provided Frankie with fewer save opportunities, or perhaps he has enjoyed more two- or three-run lead (and thus safer) opportunities. It may also be possible that Scioscia is using Frankie in more non-save, and therefore less important, situations. Nonetheless, because Frankie's peripherals have, on balance, remained about the same, it's possible that he will see some improvement. I have every reason to believe he'll bounce back and once again be among the top three closers in WXRL.
For a bit of context, let's see how the 2002 squad stacks up in these categories:
Closer WXRL: Troy Percival, 6.149 wins, 4th among closers
Strikeout Rate: 6.19 K/9, 22nd in the majors
FRAA: 70 runs, 5th among the last 180 teams participating in the playoffs
The factoid that jumps out immediately is the 2002 squad's FRAA. I did some additional research, and an FRAA of 70 runs is ridiculous. It is clear that this team was one of the top defensive clubs of the past two or three decades. While Percy did not display the dominance of Frankie's 2005 campaign, he was certainly one of the elite closers in baseball that year. Remember that he was perfect in postseason save opportunities that year (as opposed to say, Rob Nenn). The one factor in which the 2002 squad pales in comparison to this season's team is pitcher strikeout rate. This is not so surprising. A rotation comprising of Jarrod Washburn, Kevin Appier, Ramon Ortiz, Aaron Sele, and rookie John Lackey/Scott Schoeneweiss is undoubtedly inferior to the squad's current rotation.
For some contemporary context, let's examine the team many consider the best in the majors this year, the Boston Red Sox.
Closer WXRL: Jonathan Papelbon, 3.627 wins, 3rd among closers
Strikeout Rate: 7.09 K/9, 5th in the majors
FRAA: 11 runs, tied for 7th in the majors
Paps has been lights-out as expected. The Boston pitching staff is just a hair better in K/9 than the Angels, though admittedly it would be better with a full season of Schilling and Beckett. The Sox defense is a bit less effective than the Angels', but not by much. A 9 run differential probably means a difference of a win between the two clubs.
Admittedly, in any best-of-five or best-of-seven series (especially between teams of comparable ability) luck may be the determining factor of playoff success. That said, if Silver and Perry are correct, and if even a small part of luck is the reside of design, the Halos should be more as equipped for postseason success as any of the current top-ten teams in the game. The rotation is among the elite, and the much-improved Halo defense is at least above average. One cause for concern, however, is closer Frankie Rodriguez. While he has not suffered a drastic regression, his performance has dipped a bit, it remains to be seen if he can maintain the level of dominance he exhibited last season.
This does not mean that these factors are completely deterministic, however. As the Halos learned in 2005, an entire postseason series can turn on unaccounted-for factors such as the amount of rest (or lack thereof) between series and blown calls on dropped third strikes by dunce Doug Eddings. Nonetheless, we have reason to be at least guardedly optimistic about the Angels' postseason hopes.