Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Offense is Offensive in Playoff Success

One of the major linchpins in my discussions about playoff success is the study by Baseball Prospectus that they published in their great book, "Baseball Between the Numbers" in their chapter, "Why Doesn't Billy Beane's Sh*t Work in the Playoffs?".  And I've been waiting to publish some of their work for a while now - had it written up - but now I can't find it after a recent clean-up for friends coming by.  So I'm going to wing it for once.

Scoring Runs Does Not Correlates with Postseason Success

In their study, BP correlated postseason success, using a value system that awarded points based on what a team did in the playoffs ultimately, with various baseball metrics.  The first important result:  while preventing runs correlates with postseason success, scoring runs does not.  They note:
There is literally no relationship between regular-season offense and postseason success in our data set; the correlation is 0.0014 - in other words, it doesn't exist.
Kind of hard to misinterpret that.

They also made the point that, oddly enough, it isn't that hard to detect:
  • Since 1972, there have been 27 teams that made the postseason in spite of having below-average offenses.  Of these, seven won the World Series.  All of these seven had excellent pitching staffs.  It's hard to make the playoffs with a below-average offense unless you have an excellent pitching staff.
  • Conversely, 20 teams have made the post-season with below-average run prevention.  None of them won the World Series, and only two even played for the championship.  16 of 20 lost their first playoff series.
Not only that, but no offensive measure turned out to have any significant factor, though stolen-base attempts have a slight, but statistically insignificant, positive relationship.

They did not speculate on what this means, but in my mind, there is a number of ways this can tie back to playoff success. To me, I view SBA as a general measure of the team's speed overall. Sure some managers just run, but generally, faster teams steal more, which indicates team speed. And team speed shows up not only in SBA, but in things that are not measured as well, such as baserunning effectiveness (taking extra base regularly), getting to balls as a defender, heck, getting on base more often too, as their BABIP should be higher.

Great Pitching Has Slight Advantage Over Great Hitting

BP studied this by going through baseball history for great pitching but average offense teams that played great offense but average pitching teams. They found that the great pitching team beat the great offense team more than expected, resulting in an extra win 2 to 3 percent of the time. That's not huge, but at least consistent with the above.

In addition, they correlated the top-three starting pitchers VORP and found that there was a higher correlation. This shows that it is especially important to have three great starters in the post-season.   They also did it for all starting pitcher VORP and it was even higher.  They speculate that this makes sense as teams often start four starters today and fifth starters are sometimes useful out of the bullpen.

Other Factoids From Study
  • The performance of non-closer relievers is of very little importance in the post-season, generally.
  • Highest correlation is opponents' batting average.  
  • Avoiding walks doesn't seem to have much relationship with playoff success.  And it makes sense, better to walk the other team's best hitter than give up homer.
Final Results of the Study

BP identified three factors that have "the most fundamental and direct relationship" with playoff success:
  • Closer WXRL
  • Pitching staff strikeout rate
  • FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average)
These make sense.  As they note, "if you strike a batter out, you'll prevent him from doing any harm."  And striking out hitters becomes particularly important when facing good offenses that one normally see in the playoffs "because good hitters tend to tee off against finesse pitchers while losing some of their advantage against power pitchers who can throw an unhittable pitch."

And when you combine that with great fielding, it can become nearly impossible for opponents to get hits and generate rallies.  Of the 33 teams to win the World Series since 1972, only five had a below-average defense and none were truly bad.

BP did note that this is not a "secret sauce", as the effect of the three accounts for only 11% of playoff success.  As they wrote, "the majority of the time, it's plain old luck that prevails."

However, when a team has all three factors going well, "they can become quite powerful."  They ranked the 180 playoff teams in their study in each of these three categories.  What they found is that the teams that did the best overall in the three categories overall (creating a composite score) not only typically ended up in the World Series, but they also won it.  7 of the top 10 won the World Series.  In fact, two of the losing teams lost to one of the ten in the playoffs.  Taking out those two results would mean 7 of 8 teams won the World Series and all got in.

I had compiled where the Giants would have ranked among the Top 10, and as I noted, I lost my original writing and research.  However, I can say that the Giants were best in the majors in strikeout rate in 2010,  and I know that Brian Wilson was among the leaders in WRXL (though I cannot locate the stat anymore).  I still cannot find FRAA on BP, but using UZR as a proxy for it, the Giants had the best UZR in the majors in 2010, and especially so by UZR/150.  I would surmise that the Giants probably would have made the Top 10 list had I been able to figure out each ranking.

Meanwhile, the worse 10 in composite ranking did not make the World Series once.  They lost in the division series four times and in the championship series six times.  All together, these teams had a 16-35 record in the playoffs.

Giants Thoughts

As I've been noting for many years now, the Giants have been built in a way that maximizes  these factors and thus give them a competitive advantage in the playoffs, even if it is slight according to the study.  Offense gives ZERO advantage.

Thus, a good business person wanting to maximize his chances in the playoffs, and accepts that the BP study gives a blueprint for your strategy, would focus most of his or her energies into obtaining and developing a high strikeout pitching staff, developing a highly effective closer, and focusing on having a good defense.  Offense will be a secondary matter until that pitching is set up nicely.  That is, you focus your scarce resources - your first round draft pick - on pitching, pitching, and more pitching, then select hitters hoping that some develop more often due to good scouting.

That is what the Giants have done.  Sabean has forever focused on having good fielding teams and having a good closer.  The strikeout pitching staff came with the personnel he picked up, Lincecum, Sanchez, Wilson, though Cain and Bumgarner are no slouches either.  And Romo is excellent too.

They have not wasted a lot of first round draft picks on position players until after their pitching staff was full up with great starters and a great closer.  And they still picked up a good pitcher in Zack Wheeler in the draft after selecting Buster .

Instead, they have signed up veterans where they needed them, and left spots for their young position players who showed some potential of becoming a major league starter, whether it was Lance Niekro, Jason Ellison, Fred Lewis, Kevin Frandsen, Pablo Sandoval, Travis Ishikawa, Emmanuel Burriss, John Bowker, Nate Schierholtz.  And they traded away Bengie Molina when they thought that Buster Posey was ready.

Free agents are hit and miss (for example, most fans would have been for the Giants signing Carlos Beltran when he was available, but he's considered a lost contract now to the Mets), but when you have one of the best pitching and fielding teams in the majors, you do not have to generate much offense in order to win with this great defensive team.  So you can sit back and try different things with your offense and still be at least treading water overall, when you have this great pitching and fielding.

I don't know if the Giants offense will ever get started in 2011.  History says that it should, particularly once Sandoval starts hitting, but you never know when history says that these old players will finally hit the wall:  Andres Torres, Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell, Miguel Tejada.  Even Cody Ross is a possibility there as well.

Impatience Can Cost Us A Better Future

But the point to me is that the Giants are set up nicely for the rest of the decade.  Better to not trade away some of that future in order to get into the playoffs in 2011, as that would hurt multiple years in the future when a young player would contribute value and at a cheaper price.   Just pick up spare parts like Bill Hall and see how they go.

Now, if I were in Milwaukee's shoes, yeah, I can see trading away everything to win now.  They did not plan out their team structure very well, and they were impatient a few years back too and traded away a lot of young players, and their best players will soon either go free agent or go past their prime years.  Their window is closing fast.

But the Giants look great in their pitching staff for the long run and the position players are looking nice as well, in a couple of years.  The team should start to gel, both offense and defense, in a year or two, at which point we could start thinking about a long-term dynasty similar to the late 90's Yankees.   How good is a team that could lose a Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain and not skip too big of a beat?

It's not that I think offense is totally useless, it is just that offense NOW, at the cost of reducing the chances of a great future, is not a tradeoff I would take.  This is just a resource decision that I disagree with, we need the young players for the future, assuming the Giants consider them untouchables.  That tradeoff is a position that people who do not believe in this great future would take, because they just cannot see how great our future can be.

Sticks and Stones

Call me whatever names under the sun, but until I see something LOGICAL and backed by baseball studies, I'm not changing my position.  Sabean may not be perfect, but I'm not looking for perfect.  And any Naysayer clearly outs themselves by pointing out all Sabean's mistakes:  the point of your GM is not to avoid mistakes, it is to put together a great team capable of winning it all, warts, mistakes, and all.  The longer a GM has been in charge, the longer the laundry list of mistakes.  The Big Picture is what the future looks like, in spite of the mistakes along the way (and not all his doing either, like Barry Zito and probably the Pierzynski trade)

I love the makeup of the Giants pitching staff and farm system that SABEAN PUT TOGETHER.  Some parts were luck, undoubtedly, but that's true of anyone then, even Brian Cashman, so I'm not sure what the point is when the Naysayers point that out.  They don't really think through the logical consequences of such a stance (basically their position leads to the conclusion that baseball is all about luck, in which case, why do they bother to watch the players, go play APBA then or a video game version).

Ultimately Sabean is the one who decided to keep them all together and not trade any of them away, as many of his Naysayers been saying he should do for years now.  That's smarts, not luck.


  1. Sweetie, "below average" is meaningless in this context. Giants were slightly below average last year, but they were way below average early in the year.

    That early-season team would not have prospered in the playoffs. The later-season team, of course, did.

    Check with BP how many teams with offenses in the bottom fifth of MLB win in the playoffs. That's what we're talking about. Not "below average."

    What you're doing is sophistry.

  2. Didn't mean to post anonymous.

    More to the point: To be strictly fair, we're talking about the Giants. Not one of the bottom 20%. The one at the very bottom.

    Ask BP how many teams with the worst offense in MLB have won the World Series.

    That is what we're talking about.

    BP's "below average" talley is a bunch of teams slightly below the mean in runs scored -- basically, teams that I would say, in the vernacular, have "average" offenses. BP makes exactly the point I made, in other words.

    Also, do you understand that the notion that offense doesn't matter unavoidably means pitching and defense don't matter? Do you realize there's a game being played, and the field of play is not separate, hermetically sealed spread sheets, one for offense and one for defense, but a field wherein offense and defense are perfectly correlative in a causal relationship?

    What BP's conclusions boil down to is: Good pitching beats good hitting. Seriously. And that is what teams in the post season typically have: Good pitching and good hitting. The teams with better pitching have a bigger edge than those with better hitting. That's all.

    This isn't as hard -- and certainly not as ideological -- as you make it.

    You're a nose to the grindstone guy. You do not understand what the numbers are telling you. You think you do, you insist you do, but you don't. You assume your conclusions.

    Your insistence on strawmanning all opposing arguments -- and striking a pose so hysterically defensive of Sabean in the process -- suggests either fatal dimness (like you are a bean counter without intelligence) or insecurity (like you know you're wrong but can't let go).

    If the current season to date demonstrates anything it is that the Giants were tremendously lucky last year. That does not invalidate the achievement or the joy I took in it.

    But the achievement also does not validate Sabean's methods. He did the same thing in 2010 that he had done every year past (overpay for unwanted veterans who look ok using traditional metrics, but not advanced stats, and who are past their primes).

    Finally, after years of doing the same thing, it worked. Yes, a lot of luck made that happen, including the no injury luck.

    That does not mean the Sabean method works. He did get lucky. Burrell, Ross, Huff will never repeat their 2010 seasons. (Oh, and are you seriously going to downplay the significance of offense in the 2010 NLCS and World Series? Cody Ross? Edgar Rentaria? No fan of either, me, but exactly why do you think they were considered most valuable?)

    Anyway, Sabean's unchanging method isn't working this year, just as it didn't work in most previous years. If you do not understand this you have never had a job that involved evaluating performance, outcomes, or risk vs. reward. Or, if you did, you were very bad at it.

    On Sabean's behalf I would note that bad luck kept the Bonds-Kent-Burks team out of the World Series, and something akin to bad luck (Bad Dusty? Bad Karma? Razor thin chance?) led to the 2002 debacle.

    I am not condemning Sabean. I'm just saying he's incredibly crappy at his job for a guy who has held the position longer than anyone and has a payroll larger than 3/4 of his peers.

    You love him, I understand. But if it weren't for Dick Tidrow you would never have even heard Sabean's name as you were growing up.

    And you would now be defending some demonstrably wrongheaded economics professor on an obscure academic blog.

  3. Fourth. Most. Likely. Team. in. the. majors .to. make. the. playoffs. according. to. baseball. prospectus.

    Eight. teams. make. the. playoffs. only. one. wins. the. world. series.


    1 - third in baseball in strikeouts
    2 - third in baseball in saves, one behind first (best I could do, sorry)
    3 - first in MLB in starter's ERA (best I could do, sorry)
    4 - 17th (give you that one) in defensive efficiency - in MLB, that is.

    "The current season to date"? They have the fourth best record in the league.
    "Luck"? Fourth. Most. Likely. Team. in. the. majors .to. make. the. playoffs. according. to. baseball. prospectus.

    Would really love to see how runs scored and runs allowed are "perfectly correlative in a causal relationship". Can you tell us? Do you really believe that Cody Ross and Edgar Renteria are the prime reasons the Giants won the World Series last year?

    So.. BP is wrong. The standings are wrong. Sabean is wrong. Pythagoras is wrong. Everyone is wrong.

    Huh. A troll methinks.

  4. Just a thought, but maybe stolen-base attempts was positively related because of not only team speed helping on offense but also on defense.

    Great stuff man.

  5. hilarie,

    Sorry, but YOU are the one who has it wrong here. Saying offense doesn't matter is the same as saying pitching and defense don't matter? Talk about straw man reasoning! You realize we are talking about 2 teams playing each other, right?

    You used a lot of big words there, sweetie, but you don't know whatthehell you are talking about!

  6. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

    That is, hilarie is just posting stuff to post stuff, he/she isn't actually reading anything I've posted. I agree with the assessment this person is a troll.

    There has been zero response to my questions and challenges.

    Most of all, the person keeps on referring to offense in the regular season. Hello?!? This is about the playoffs.

    And had this person actually READ my comments, he/she would already know that I AGREED that the Giants going forward probably needs to improve their offense in order to make the playoffs for sure, though I'm still a little shocked by marc's comments that BP has the Giants as the fourth most likely team to make the playoffs.

    I think that is a combination of the factors I've mentioned in my last few posts. First of all, Giants don't need to do much to finish in the high 80's to win division. That would have won last season with SD ex-A-Gon. Second of all, none of the other NL West teams actually IMPROVED themselves over last season, and most have gone down (SD lost A-Gon, LA lost Manny, COL lost De La Rosa and both Ubaldo and Car-Gon reverted to mean as I thought they might) and AZ only is in contention because Zach Duke, Micah Owings, and Josh Collmenter pitched like aces for 3-4-5 starts, they should fade once they fade (and that's already begun, Collmenter has lost two in a roll now, Duke got blasted, Owings too).

    Still, fourth best, that's pretty darn good.

    Of course, hilarie will think it is hilarious to post another comment with a riff on some other tangent....

  7. Indeed - fourth. Look at the "playoff odds" page. True, it's hard for me to see the other teams in the division winning it, but still, BP has them fourth in MLB in wins (90) behind the same three teams. 90 wins feels pretty accurate to me.

    Not to actually talk about, you know, reality or anything, or to change the subject from "Sabean is an ass" and actually comment... I agree completely with the trade for a rental situation. The price is far too high, and the options are few. Reyes would be a very bad idea - not for 2011, but he'll be overpriced to keep. People seem to forget that you don't get squatter's rights on a player, he's still a free agent at the end of the season, period.

    And the point about the Brewers is spot on - this year is their window, which absolutely is not the case with the Giants. I don't understand why people seem to think that trading away the minor league bats the team does have for a half-season rental makes any sense.

    Here's to Ryan Vogelsong making the All-Star team - I sure hope Bochy has the class to select him.

  8. I finally read through all the dimwitted comments hilarie had to say.

    You say I'm the one with problems with fatal dimness?

    You miss the entire point of this post, that there is a combination of factors that maximizes a team's chances of going deep into the playoffs. And that the Giants combination of these factors is one that generally has led teams, not only to the World Series, but to win it too. That is not luck when Sabean is the guy who put all the winning pieces together, great closer, great pitching staff, good fielding.

    How oblivious is that?

    You keep on talking about grindstone, so I'm guessing you must have been grinding your brains away while you are grinding yours.

    And you must be pretty observant in real life: you mention that if it weren't for Dick Tidrow, I would have never heard of Sabean's name as I was growing up. I've made it pretty clear and often that I grew up with the 70's Giants, heck, I followed Tidros's career when he was a ballplayer. You are off by about 30 years on the age you think I am.

  9. Hilarie, the achievement of the past three seasons is what validates Sabean's methods, dimwit, last season was only the culmination of all that hard work of rebuilding he has put in.

    What he has done smartly is build up a GREAT pitching staff, you keep on harping on how bad the offense is, but the GREAT pitching is what he put together, and BECAUSE OF RESOURCE RESTRAINTS (limited high quality draft picks) he focused those rare resources on a skill that not only is very hard to accumulate (that is why teams are desperate for great starting pitching) but also makes your offense that much more efficient in winning games, meaning that you can use the remaining resource you have, money, on obtaining the rest of the team.

    If you had any business sense, you would realize that.

    So yeah, free agents don't always work. You can look at any team and see that every GM has bad signings of old players. By that logic, one should fire every GM in existence.

    What Sabean has done well in recent years is combining youth and vets in a risk minimizing manner, so that should one hitter go down, either in performance or injury, there is another player of similar quality available to jump in. And if not, there might be a vet free agent that might, or an expensive unwanted vet another team wants to dump (like Mark Ellis).

    In addition, by having such a great defense - pitching and fielding - you can bring in a number of veteran players, not all of whom will work, but the Giants DON'T NEED hitters as good as other teams when they have a defense as good as their defense, they just need good enough, something in the consistent high 600 to mid-700 OPS would work.

    But you sad sacks just don't understand. And I'm tired of explaining to you all over at MCC, so I just lurk and read at leisure for the most part, and stick in my support of Sabean every now and again, because nobody there will.

    I feel that totally invalidates the achievement and joy you took in the championship, you don't understand how it happened, you don't appreciate the person who put it together for us, you want to ruin that situation by firing the person who built it. I just feel sad about you people.

  10. No injury luck? We lost Renteria and DeRosa basically from the beginning. And while Molina was starting, he took a bad foul in May and appears to have never recovered from it all season. Schierholtz was hitting well then injured his shoulder, which he said restricted him all season. Torres missed basically the month of September, a key month, because of his appendectomy. Jose Guillen was actually hitting GREAT for the Giants until the last two weeks, when his neck problem became too much for him to handle, he really should have been DLed that last two weeks. Rowand had another injury in early season that messed him up. And Wellemeyer's injury worked out as we got to bring in Bumgarner, but still, that was another injury. Runzler was another guy we lost to injury, Chris Ray too.

    Did we watch the same season?

    See, that just goes to show you don't understand yet about Sabean's methods. You focused on the hitters. Honestly, they don't really matter, as long as we have enough offense from the group as a whole to win games. That is what you people have been missing.

    It is like how we won games last season and this season, in high proportions. There's a new hero every night. So last year it was Burrell, Ross, Huff, Renteria. This year, it probably will be an entirely different bunch.

    That's been my issue with the masses: always focus on the offense.

    Hello?!? Sabean has put together one of the best defenses in all of the majors!!! And it looks good to continue for much of the rest of this decade. When you have a defense like that, you can then throw everything against the wall and keep what sticks, because that will be good enough to win with this defense.

    If you want perfection, you aren't going to get it: every GM is a human. The key trick is to design a team where mistakes can be sloughed off as it was nothing without having Yankee-level spending power.

    Sabean has done that.

  11. So you say that Sabean's unchanging method isn't working? Who has been in first place most of the season or real close?

    Oh, I'm sorry, what's that, that's all luck again?

    Which team has been playing at a 90 win pace since the beginning of the 2009 season?

    That's all luck too?

    And you say that his method didn't work in most previous years. What part of rebuilding do you understand? Do you really understand how to rebuild a team, what the lifecycle is, dangers, etc.

    The Giants just moved out of the rebuild phase in 2009, so I don't get what you mean by it didn't work in most previous years. If you mean losing means that it was not working: REBUILDING MEANS A LOT OF LOSING.

    A sign that his method is working is that the players he drafted WHILE HE WAS LOSING are big contributors now that we are winning. Lincecum, check. Posey, check. Dirty, check. Bumgarner, check. Bweez, check. Romo, check.

    You people always claim that I'm cherry picking, so I guess it takes one to know one, you guys cherry pick all the time with Sabean. All you do is list mistakes, but the big picture (and I do know that term, my work goes to my $16B company's senior management and board of directors) is that the Giants HAVE A GREAT PITCHING STAFF and already got the young core of the middle of the lineup in place - Posey, Sandoval, Belt - plus look to have their #1 and #2 in Brown and Panik.

    If you don't want mistakes, go back to the sandbox, that is probably the last time anyone in their life can hope to not have a mistake happen. Mistakes happen, deal with it; Sabean did, by putting together a bulletproof pitching staff and now coupling it with good young hitters.

    The future looks so bright, I gotta wear my Panda Hat.

  12. So yes, you are condemning Sabean by saying that this great pitching staff - did I mention, one of best in majors three years running? - that he put together is considered a "crappy job" by people like you.

    If you want efficient usage of a baseball payroll, you need to go back to the pre-free agency age. And it don't matter how much more money he has over other teams if the free agents available are worth crap.

    But in baseball, you spin the dice and you sign the crap because to not do so would bring cries from the fans demanding why you didn't spend your money to maximize your chances that season.

    Especially in the unforgiving SF area, it is bad enough to lose, but if they lost and didn't spend all that money, they would have really gotten blasted and with all the season ticket holders then newly freed to cancel if they wanted to, they had to try. I understand the management and marketing need to do that.

    And, again, as a sign that you are not even reading anything I write, I said that I don't love Sabean, I love results, I love planning, I love strategy, and most of all I love winning. He has had them in spades recently and as long as he continues to do that job well, I'm happy he's in charge.

    That's another thing you people don't seem to understand, the nuance between loving a person versus actions. I've never once said that I love Sabean. I said I was happy he was rehired, and I love what he has done with the Giants, but you all twist it into "I love Sabean".

    And actually, I would be defending Schumpeter, who once was obscure but is now held in much higher light.

    Sigh, this is why I don't go to MCC anymore, idiots who just don't get it, or worse, twist my words, or even worse, go off on a tangent that doesn't relate to the topic at hand.

  13. Hey, you know what, hilarie, that's your opinion, I'm willing to wait this out because I am pretty sure how the Giants are going to turn out eventually.

    Hopefully you and the others will have enough humility and humanity to say you were so very, very wrong in the future. I would pray for your souls, but right now you all appear soul-less to me.

    Hey, how's this, let me know under what conditions you would apologize to Sabean and say that he was right.

    I'm more than willing to say that I was wrong if the 2010's don't turn out the way I think it will. I would even be man enough to go on MCC and admit it, that's more than Grant would ever do on my website, I would bet. More than you would too, I am pretty sure.

  14. I'm pretty sure that if one did a study of free agent signings, took projected WAR, took actual WAR, compared to real salary costs and real and projected income derived therefrom (and yes, free agents are a different animal from a replacement player or one under team control - completely different salary situation) - anyway - you would probably find that no team is very different from the others.

    Cashman is touted as the best, but how many starters have they gotten nothing from? Dice-K in Boston? People are never ever going to forget Rowand and Zito, but c'mon.

    A very illuminating (part) of a book I read was by Rob Neyer, analyzing trades throughout history. Biggest mistake was trading away the farm for a stopgap (see: Jeff Bagwell). However, what was most interesting was that even, in hindsight, the most lopsided trades were generally well within reason at the time of the trade. Teams may be proved wrong in the end, but it's not like they lose their minds when making trades.

    It's baseball. You can't know the future. What separates the good oweership and GMs from the bad is being right more often than wrong. I see a playoff team on the field. Sabean therefore is a good GM. You want to complain about bad signings? How about having to pay full free agent market value to the starting staff? Makes Zito and Rowand kind of moot, doesn't it?



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