The most exciting part of the baseball season begins tonight with Game One of the ALDS. Over the course of the next month, as many as 41 games featuring MLB’s best teams will be televised nationally, and we fans get to drink it all in.
But there is one downside to the playoffs: the best teams don’t always win. Anything can happen in a best-of-seven series (let alone a best-of-five), and the differences in teams’ true talent levels are often cancelled out just by virtue of who’s hot at the time and random chance. The 2006 Cardinals and 2003 Marlins, for example, were pretty clearly not the best teams in the game when they won the World Series, and I’d argue that the Giants weren’t actually No. 1 when they won the Fall Classic just last year.
So how are the playoffs decided? In their groundbreaking essay, Why Doesn’t Billy Beane’s S*** Work in the Playoffs?, Nate Silver and Dayn Perry identified three factors that correlate reasonably well with playoff success: dominant pitching (as demonstrated by high strikeout rates), tight fielding, and a lights-out closer.
Looking at last year’s postseason, these three factors served as startlingly accurate predictors of how things went down. The Giants finished first in all three categories, and they ended up with the trophy. The AL pennant-winning Rangers placed third in my rankings, and the numbers I generated ended up picking the winners in six of the seven 2010 playoff series.
Of course, this isn’t foolproof. Luck still plays a much larger role than any of those attributes. Moreover, Rational Pastime’s Jesse-Douglas Mathewson showed last year that the relationship between these factors and playoff success has weakened since 2002. In general, though, history (including last season) shows that teams that have above-average run prevention skills are better bets go deeper into October.
Before the playoff games start this year, I did another analysis focusing on three key statistics—K/9 rate for pitching, Ultimate Zone Rating for fielding, and SIERA for each club’s closer—but devised a slightly more sophisticated methodology. After I gathered the numbers for each of the eight teams, I took the average and found the standard deviation to calculate z-scores for how each club came out in each category (a team whose defense is average for a 2011 playoff team would have a z-score of zero; a positive number is good, a negative number is bad). Essentially, this is a means of examining how big the differences between the teams are, not just saying which are better.
Without further ado, here are the results:
Next, I added up the z-scores in each category to give each team a cumulative total—again, higher means better built for the postseason, with zero representing an average playoff team. Here’s how they shake out:
According to these numbers, the Brewers are very slight favorites to win their first World Series. They’re projected to beat the Yankees in the Fall Classic, although the difference is tiny and, we should assume, insignificant.
Looking at the rest of the scores, the Rays, Phillies, and Diamondbacks are also well built for the postseason, though each has a flaw (pitching for Tampa Bay and Arizona’s and fielding for Philadelphia) that keeps them out of the top tier. Meanwhile, the Rangers don’t look to be particularly well-stocked for the playoffs, while the Tigers and Cardinals appear doomed for early exits this October.
According to these numbers, here’s a breakdown of how the playoffs will go—if they’re right, feel free to call me a genius, but if not, remember that this is the numbers’ opinion, not mine:
- ALDS: Yankees over Tigers; Rays over Rangers
- NLDS: Phillies over Cardinals; Brewers over Diamondbacks
- ALCS: Yankees over Rays
- NLCS: Brewers over Phillies
- World Series: Brewers over Yankees
Take these predictions with a grain of salt and your own analysis (I think I’d have a hard time picking the Brewers over the Phillies, for example), and remember that the biggest factor in play will be cold, calculating luck. But science! has taught us that these are the most important traits for teams to have if they want to play deep into October.