Friday, November 02, 2012

My Latest Comment on Success in the Playoffs

I commented on in a comment at another site, and I thought I would share it here, as it encapsulates a lot of thoughts and ideas that I've been squirreling away and represents my latest thoughts about winning championships.

Discussion of Giants Success Show Lack of Knowledge of Latest Playoff Research Studies

The discussion here reflects how most people don't understand the peculiarities of the playoffs, and really, ultimately, of baseball.  This is something I've been slowly realizing over time and it appears to be coming to a head now.  Studies by both Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times investigated the connection between success in the playoffs and offense and defense.  What both, using much different methodologies, found is that it is defense (pitching and fielding) that matters significantly in the playoffs.  Offense - whether via BA, HR, walks, even SB - did not significantly affect a team's likelihood to go deep into the playoffs.

To Win In Playoffs, Teams Need Quality Starts and to Avoid Disaster Starts

What my research into the playoffs and the success rate of pitchers and therefore their teams, when they throw a quality start (as defined by Shandler's PQS methodology, which is a saber version of QS) showed is that when a team gets a better PQS rating (DOM, DIS, other) from their starter than the other team, they won a vast majority of the time, 82% of the starts in the 2008-2011 playoffs.  And obviously, having a quality start was a good way of increasing the probability of having a better PQS, and teams getting a high PQS (DOM start in Shandler's nomenclature or dominating) won 69% of the time, 82% of the time if you took out all the matchups where both pitchers had a DOM start.

Clearly, it behooves teams to get a quality start in the playoffs and avoid DIS (for disaster) starts, where teams won only 30% of the time, 20% of the time when you take out the games where both starters had disaster starts.  Thus, to maximize your team's chances of winning in the playoffs, you want to have a rotation of starters who consistently have high DOM percentages and low DIS percentages (as percentage of total starts).

Teams Can Build a Staff of Pitchers Who Throw a Lot of QS and avoid DIS

And as we know pitchers can be relatively consistent in throwing quality starts, so ideally you want a staff of pitchers who consistently throw quality starts.  The Giants have that with Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner, and Vogelsong.  As poorly as Lincecum appeared to pitch, he still had 55% of his starts be DOM starts.  Cain, Bumgarner, and Vogelsong were all over 60%, in 2012.  Similarly in 2010, the trio of Lincecum, Cain, and Bumgarner were all above 60%, and Sanchez was high too.

And as average as Zito is - and he is average, people keep on treating him as if he is a poor pitcher, he is not, he is just not equal to his contract, but he has been good for the Giants - when he is on, he is capable of having a number of quality starts (see his great start against Colorado in his first start of 2012; see his start to the 2010 season, ironic since he didn't make the playoff rosters, as when he is lost, he is lost).

Keys to Playoff Success that BP Study Found and Giants

BP's study went deeper than just identifying defense as the key to winning in the playoffs.  They came up with three metrics by which teams doing well in them tended to do better in the playoffs.  First off was having a pitching staff that overall has a high K/9.  The Giants have had that in recent seasons, not so much in the years listed as "better" in the lists above.  That is why they decided to study this, to find out why Beane's "stuff" didn't work in the playoffs, and one was that his staffs did not strike out that much.  Second off was having a high WRXL closer (Wilson was that; Romo was pitching like one).  Beane was lacking there as well, he thought relievers were easily replaceable.  Lastly was having a top fielding teams (2010 was that; not sure about 2012).  BP looked at all the A's playoff teams and none met the criteria until their last team.

Pitching Controls Action in Baseball

This makes a lot of sense if you think hard about it.  Pitching really does control the action.  If it didn't, pitchers like Barry Zito or Bobby Jones or Jeff Weaver have no chance to be a playoff hero.  Yet they were.  We talk all the time about how the good hitters take advantage of pitchers' mistakes.  Clearly, the best pitchers make fewer mistakes.  And a great defense helps out when the pitcher makes a mistake and the ball is blasted (like all those balls that Blanco caught in the playoffs, or especially that one he caught in Cain's Perfect Game).

That's How Giants Won Two in Three

These explain why the Giants of 2010 and 2012 were able to do what the Giants teams in the past were not able to do.  They had good pitching then that did not rely on strikeouts, but have great pitching now that is reliant on strikeouts.  They also had good closers, able to shut down the other team cold.  Couple all that with good overall defense.

Offense Only Need to be Good Enough, Not Great As Most Think

And their offense was good enough.  Clearly not as great as the offenses the Giants had previously, but as noted by two different studies by two noted baseball analytics organizations, offense don't really matter in the playoffs.  Contrary to what most fans, including me, have thought for all of our lives, it is not offense that we should revere, it is pitching, particularly the strikeout pitchers (though I would note my opinion that if BP redid their study to include K/BB, that ratio might make their cut of metrics that matter in going deep).

Giants Pitchers Better Than Sabers Say

I would also note that sabermetrics is failing to account for two traits that strongly define the Giants pitching staff.  One is that both Cain and Zito are among the very rare pitchers who are capable of controlling their BABIP and keeping it much below the mean of .300.  That skill is not captured in any of the advanced saber metrics out there in common use, in fact, they are penalized in these metrics as the assumption is that they are being lucky.  The other is that the Giants pitching staff, however they do it, are capable of maintaining a low HR/FB ratio.  Fangraphs first studied Cain, then the entire staff, and found that somehow - they speculated that Righetti has some secret sauce - the Giants as a team are able to prevent homeruns.  However, again, they are penalized in any metric that assume a regression in their HR/FB ratio.

Giants Better Than Most People Think

Thus, overall, these are the reasons explaining much of the confusion I have seen in the comment thread here.  People, particularly sabermetrics, view offense as more important than pitching, when it should be the other way around, by a lot.  Particularly as it relates to the playoffs.

People consider it a total fluke that the Giants had that long string of good starts to end these playoffs, but they forget that basically the same group of starters (including Zito but Sanchez instead of Vogelsong) in 2010 had the longest streak of starts where the opposition was kept to 3 runs or less (can't remember the exact number, something like 20+ games) since the 1910's when the deadball era was still alive.  The Giants have great pitching and fielding, and that shone again in these playoffs.  And, again, it is defense - pitching and fielding - that helps a team go deep into the playoffs, not offense, great, good, or otherwise.

And for all the wisecracks about the Giants offense, the playoff lineup was the basic lineup since Scutaro and Pence joined the team and with them in there, the Giants led all NL teams in average run scored on the road (or was second, don't remember exactly) and, home or road, averaged 5.2 runs per game in August to the end of the season.

So the Giants winning in 2012 was no fluke.  The pitching is capable of such streaks and is composed of pitchers who do quality starts regularly.  Quality starts are the keys to winning in the playoffs.  Still, the offense has been very good since the Giants added Pence to the lineup, and continued to be good enough during the playoffs, where they averaged 4.3 runs per game while allowing 2.9 runs per game.  That Pythagorean works out to 11 wins in 16 games, which is exactly what they won.  The Giants earned their World Championship, with pitching and fielding, and good enough offense to justify the number of games that they won.


  1. I would note that the Giants of 2012 were not the same Giants of 2010. For one thing, while the Giants of 2010 were #1 (Fangraphs), the Giants of 2012 were #13 - thus were middle of the pack. The Giants of 2010 were also #10 overall in pitching - visibly better than the Giants of 2012.

    Furthermore the Giants of 2012 beat a better defensive team: Cincinnati was #10. Cincinnati was also a better pitching team during the season (Reds were #5 overall vs. Giants at #18).

    In fact comparing Giants vs. its opponents, the meme you put forward isn't too clear at all:

    Defense: Giants #13 vs.
    Reds #10, Cardinals #22, Tigers #26

    Pitching: Giants #18 vs.
    Red #5, Cardinals #9, Tigers #1

    Throw in the rest of the playoffs, and the picture is even murkier:

    Nats #12, Yankees #20, Oakland #6

    Nats #4, Yankees #7, Oakland #14

    (I excluded the wild card losers because that definitely is SSS ;)

    I also freely grant that defensive metrics are very much still developing, that the Giants defense at the end of the season was far better than at the beginning (Crawford's getting used to the major leagues in particular).

    Nonetheless, the Giants beat a team which was both better pitching and defense (the Reds), missed another one because the Cardinals beat the Nats, and didn't play Oakland because Oakland got Verlandered.

    Of the other 2 teams, both of them actually had better pitching according to the stats, albeit poorer defense.

    My own view leans more towards a core of pitching and defense - paramount in 2010; lesser in 2012 but still decent, but augmented by absolutely superior in-game management and enhanced by fortuitous opponents. Of all the post-wild card game teams, the Reds, the Cardinals, and the Tigers were the ones I wanted the Giants to play through.

    The Reds because of Baker - and he came through.

    The Cardinals because they have the worst pitching of all the National League post wild card playoff teams - and because they'd have to beat the Nats to play the Giants.

    The Tigers because they are the lowest depth of any of the AL post wild card teams despite their handful of stars being so bright.


    1. c1ue

      You touched on it, but the Giants with an improved Crawford, Blanco in LF, Belt at 1B and Scutaro at 2B were a vastly improved defensive team compared to the first half of the season. Pagan improved his defense noticeably as the season went along too. Based on that, you can pretty much toss the season defensive metrics out the window when it comes to the Giants playoff performance.

      As for the pitchers, they hit a rough patch late in the season, probably from fatigue. Thanks to Bochy's careful managing, Rags and Gardner's coaching and the pitchers' own talent and gutsiness, they pulled it back together for the playoffs and WS. Again, using season long stats is deceiving here because of that downswing during the season.

    2. The Giants at the end of the season were only somewhat better defensively than at the beginning. For example, Blanco actually played quite a bit in the first 40 whereas he played very little in the next 40 (pre-Melky PEDs). Crawford was making the same great plays in the first half, he just was also making a number of boners - much like his Game 7 error. Pagan was the same throughout - a major reason why you didn't see more Pagan routes is because of Blanco and Pence.

      As for pitching - the Giants in the 2nd half were frankly more than a little ordinary. Even in the playoffs, the reality was that the only starter pitching well was Vogelsong, with Affeldt, Romo, and Lincecum doing well in relief.

      Zito pitched as he always has - but in every playoff game, balls found mitts. Cain and Bumgarner were not dominant in any of their starts, excepting perhaps Bumgarner's WS game vs. the Tigers. Even that I'd put an asterisk on because the Tigers are both a poor hitting team vs. lefties and were clearly flailing at the plate in general.

      The reason the Giants won the WS and the division was offense. They scored like mad on the road, and they were scoring enough at home.

      This doesn't in any way detract from the fact that The Giants Won The World Series - but the reality is that 2012 was not due to defense and pitching.

      It was due to offense and pitching and an ideal playoff opponent breakdown. The offense was simply different than most of the AL/NL have put together now: singles/walks/steals/errors/doubles vs. home runs to drive in whoever accidentally got on base.


    3. Good point. We were waiting for our pitching to catch up to our hitting all year, but it seemed especially important in August. Cain flagged a bit after the Perfecto, Bumgarner flagged after that Doyer high pitch count, and Vogelsong had his troubles after holding down an ERA leaderboard for the first half. Zito was Zito, and Timmy was Bad Juju Timmy.

      The offense was much improved, and the addition of Scutaro put it into warp drive. The ability to score runs on the road, as well as the inability at home, was pretty skewed. Pence may have struggled, but he did provide lineup protection, and he did muscle guys home. Mainly, Pagan stepped up huge after Melky left.

      I was pretty amazed that they could play the string the hits together game. They did it quite well. I was counting HRs at the beginning of the year, and thought we were down way too many. I was wrong on that front. But I did like the additions made, and I was confident it was a good team, more athletic, and better baserunners.

      One thing that Bochy did this year was he didn't force SB situations, especially with the bottom of the order. In 2011, he seemed to be running Ford and Burriss every time they got into that situation, and (without checking the actual stats) that didn't really work out. Then again, he had less confidence in his offense at that point.

    4. Great comments c1ue, I gave a partial answer down below, just got a lot of work going on right now.

      Yeah, Shankbone, that string thing was amazing, right? I think that started working once we got Scutaro, who kept the ball in action. That gave us a nice string of hitters who not only didn't strike out much but did well in terms of BABIP when they did make contact, in Scutaro, Sandoval, and Posey. Then Pence added on by hitting well when there were RISP, making it four in a row. And when Belt was performing at the plate, he made great contact, and that would give us five in a row on occasion.

      Then it became the classic infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters scenario: the other team might keep us down for a long time, but eventually the hits would string together and the Giants got a crooked number.

      That's why I consider Scutaro the more key re-sign for the Giants.

      Yeah, I think Bochy manages to the ability of his roster. Last season, he had to try to force the action more. Also, perhaps their skills was not up to Bochy's needs, there is always that. I would also note that Pequero was a perfect 3 for 3 in SB being Huff's PR, so it is not like he stopped doing that tactic. Maybe it is a confluence of the factors you list plus the fact that, to your point, the roster was more athletic and less needing to be PR for than 2011.

      For Pence, he struggled at the right times, if one could do that. He hit horribly with the bases empty or man on first. Horribly. But he hit better than his overall career numbers with RISP, and thus added a lot to our offense, despite his overall numbers, which will reflect poorly on any generic examination of his contributions to the 2012 Giants.

    5. Well, I guess c1ue and I will have to agree to disagree here. Both Crawford and Pagan finished the significantly higher Fangraphs UZR's than they were running through the first half of the season which means there second half performance had to be signicantly higher than their season average. Blanco played RF and CF early in the season. None in LF due to Melky playing every day so his D in LF was a huge upgrade on Melky who ran negative UZR's.

      I don't have defensive stats for the postseason, but to my eye the Giants defense was noticeably superior to each of their opponents.

      So offense won the WS for the Giants? Does 2-0, 2-0 and 4-3 in 10 innings look like the offense won it to you? I know it doesn't to me! Add in the game they won in Cincinnati where they got, what, 1 hit off Homer Bailey. Does that look like the offense won that game to you? Me neither!

      The pitching hit a rough patch in September but righted itself in the playoffs. Pitching and Defense is what won the postseason for the Giants!

  2. Excellent post, ogc.

    I would add(you touched on it) that when Barry Zito pitches a QS, it usually is not just a QS but a DOM. In 2012, he had 17 QS and 2 more starts in which he went 5+ IP while giving up just 2 runs. In those 19 starts, he had an ERA of 1.99 with 5 starts in which he allowed 0 runs. In this other 13 starts, his ERA was close to 9.

    But, since it doesn't matter whether you lose 4-3 or 5-4 or whether you lose 10-3 or 10-4, those DIS starts don't hurt as much as the DOM starts help.

    So, Barry Zito in 2012 was a unique pitcher whose true value to the team was probably best measured by his W-L rather than ERA or any advanced metrics.

    Also, while you always have to reserve the possibility of a negative blowout start for Zito, his performance in the playoffs should not have been surprising.

  3. What site did you post this on? I want to see the discussion.

    DrB has a good point about the defense gelling in the 2nd half as Bochy stopped the rotate a lineup, Crawford settled down and Belt stepped up. Defense became very solid, and different from the start of the year, where they had some very uncharacteristic yips.

    I trend historical over statistical, its been the same story throughout time in baseball. Good pitching shuts down good hitting. You do need enough hitting to get over the hump, something the 90s Braves didn't quite get sorted. We've had a few discussions about them 1960s Doyer teams, that is what we are looking at. Finally, if you look back at the 2002-04 Giants, you see a very good offensive team with decent starting pitching and not enough bullpen. It really shouldn't be that much of a surprise that Sabean takes so much care of his pen. He learned that one the hard way, and one thing about Sabean is that he takes his successes in stride but he remembers his failures for a long, long time. Most likely longer even than smart alec bloggers on the interwebz.

    1. I'll have to dig it up but I think it was on the Baseball Think Factory. I was a little late to the action so there are no responses:

      What you note about DrB's comment is what I had intended to get to about in my post here but I guess it didn't make it as c1ue gave a lot of great stats that refutes my premise.

      My point was that the Giants 2012 stats didn't really reflect what they got in the playoffs, in a number of ways. Sure, defense didn't look good during the season, but the defensive team at the end was pretty good, at least I thought it passed the smell test. One thing I brought up on one of my playoff posts was that while the Giants bullpen ranked poorly in the NL for 2012, the 7 guys they brought to the playoffs had a combined ERA that was similar or better than the Reds. That was true also for offense, as the playoff lineup performed well in Aug/Sept, but over all one was merely average.

      About the starting pitching, while it did not rank well in terms of ERA, it was composed of pitchers who have a great history of putting forth DOM starts, not just this season but in seasons past too.

      So while the 2012 Giants, based on 2012 stats, do not appear to be one of the better teams, at the end, during the playoffs, they certainly were playing as one of the better teams, as the composition of the team in the playoffs was substantially different from the team overall during the season.

  4. I note that a couple of the free agent commentaries out there have both Scutaro and Pagan on their lists with the following numbers:

    Pagan: $44M/4, $30M/3
    Scutaro: $8M/2, $9M/2


    1. Oops typo, Scutaro should be $16M/2, $18M/2

    2. It'd be nice for something to get worked out this week. No baseball action, the beats aren't even updating their twitter accounts... Crickets as far as the Giants news.

    3. Thanks for the estimates. Yeah, it would be nice.

      FYI, I ran into a site that found a Tweet by Pagan's wife saying something about it being a business or something, so my hopes about resigning him are fading. Though I would note that I don't consider him a must have, as I would be OK with Blanco in CF and leaving LF (sounds like Pence is not moving from RF) as a position for Peguero, Kieschnick, and a free agent LF or two, to battle over, like Sabean has been doing in recent seasons. And I like Shankbone's suggestion that Torii Hunter might be a good signing for value, plus he could bridge CF for us until Brown is ready.

      I would also note that I take a lot of the estimates with a grain of salt (sometimes large), like when all those people were predicting that Lincecum would get $30M per season in arbitration. I just don't see Scutaro getting that big a raise over the $6M salary that he signed when he was 3 years younger and after a better overall season, where his OPS was higher than it was this year, overall. And I, of course, can and will be wrong. But that is my opinion right now.

      Pagan I can see the Shankbone "it just takes one" principle working to his advantage, and that's the American Way, but I think he will learn, like Uribe learned, that sometimes you have to beware of what you wish for, as you may get it.



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