Wednesday, October 1, 2008

My Playoff Predictions, with Far, Far Too Much Detail on My Rationale

Let's be clear--the playoffs are largely a crap shoot. Although the best teams tend to emerge after 162 games, a 5- or 7- game series can produce enough fluky good or bad luck to skew the results far afield from who actually 'deserved' to win based on ability the things within the players' control.

Nonetheless, because it's fun, I'm going to do the foolish and offer some guesses, stealing my method shamelessly from the essay "Why Doesn't Billy Beane's Shit Work in the Playoffs" by Nate Silver and Dayn Perry in the book
Baseball Between the Numbers (if you haven't already, you can read the first ten pages of the essay here, or otherwise I recommend you just buy it--especially you, Chico Harlan).

Silver and Perry's basic findings, backed by a lot of complicated math as always, are that
the three most important keys playoff success are the ability to strike batters out, play good team defense, and having pitchers' strikeout rate, closer effectiveness, and team defense.

Their reasoning, summarized as simply as I can, is that every playoff team is generally pretty good, but that great pitching and defense tends to matter more than great hitting. The theory is that baseball offense is about stringing together positive offensive events, like hits, walks, homers, etc.; however when great hitters meet great pitchers, while the hitters will still win their share of the battles, the pitchers can limit and scatter those positive offensive events and reduce scoring potential, often below a certain threshold point where scoring becomes scarce. Home runs are more often solo jobs, more lead-off hits get stranded, etc. Throw in the factor that the extra days off allow teams to use their best starters and closers more and their back-end starters and middle relief rarely if at all.

They go on to isolate the skills that tend to correlate most strongly with playoff success: defensive run prevention, strikeouts (which tends to be less prone to random variation than other pitching skills), and closers' effectiveness (because closers, obviously, are called upon to pitch those highest leverage innings when games are often won or lost).

Their study also found that things like experience, late-season momentum, and "small ball" skills like speed and sacrifice bunting had very little or zero correlation with playoff success.

Below are a set of key stats I either copied from Silver and Perry or picked myself to measure each team's strengths in these key categories: overall team strikeout rate (K%), strikeout rate of the most likely four starters (4K%), team fielding runs above average (
FRAA), closer wins expected above replacement level (WXRL), and closer fielding independent pitching (CFIP). I included WXRL because it factors the pitcher's ability to perform with the most on the line, but I also thought closer FIP was important because WXRL is a counting stat heavily influenced by the opportunities the pitcher had. Of course, it's not like offensive strength means nothing, so I added team runs scored (RS) as well.

Phillies 17.35 18.5 7.589 2.41 -5 799
Cubs 20.41 21.9 1.833 2.32 53 855
Dodgers 19.67 19.1 1.167 2.26 -2 700
Brewers 17.88 18.2 2.642 4.22 19 750
Rays 18.30 18.6 2.132 4.49 61 774
White Sox 18.35 18.4 4.077 3.45 -23 811
Angels 17.95 19.2 5.661 3.22 26 765
Red Sox 19.17 19.4 3.15 2.01 35 845

The Cubs hands down have the most power pitching. After that, the you get the Red Sox, Dodgers and a bit lower the Angels, while finally the Brewers, Phillies, Rays, and White Sox all clump together as the most "finesse" staffs. (Note--in the Brewers' 4-man K rate, I counted Gallardo's total K% for the last two seasons combined to get a better sample size; all the rest of the stats presented here are 2008 only.)

Looking at the closers, the Brewers and the Rays have by far the biggest problems, and Jenks has been just kinda middle of the pack. And then, depending on which stat you weigh more strongly, the Phillies, Cubs, Dodgers, BoSox, and Angels all look powerful on the back end. (For my money, Papelbon and K-Rod are the cream of the crop here, FWIW.)

As for defense, it's clear that the Dodgers, Phillies, and especially the White Sox have their work cut out for them. Silver and Perry point out that, of the 33 teams to win the World Series from 1972 through 2005, only five had below average defense and none had a team FRAA below -10. Meanwhile, the Cubs and Rays are both fantastic defensive teams (what a difference Longoria made!), and the Red Sox, Angels , and Brewers are all very solid.

So taking all that together, it would appear that the White Sox and Brewers are the longest long-shots. (If the Brewers had a healthy Sheets and Francisco Cordero closing, this might be their year... if if if.) The Phillies, Dodgers and Rays all have some strong points and weak spots, with the Rays probably a notch below the other two. Finally, the Red Sox, Angels, and Cubs all look the most solid across the board in all categories, with the Cubs really the top dog overall.

So, with all that in mind, and a few coin tosses and gut feelings just to try to account for the 50+% of this that is freak chance, here are my picks...

NL Division Series
Cubs over Dodgers in 4
Phillies over Brewers in 4

AL Divisional Series
Angels over Red Sox in 5
Rays sweep ChiSox

Cubs sweep Phillies

Angels over Rays in 5

World Series
Angels over Cubs in 6
  • That's who I'm guessing will win. I'll be rooting for Brewers and the Rays all the way. But as long as it's neither the Phillies or the Red Sox, I can live with any outcome. You know why the Phillies are loathsome, and Red Sox fans are just waaaaay too full of themselves. I know most people will be rooting for the Cubs, but I just can't get my head around why we're supposed to believe that a Superstation-owned team with a $118M payroll is supposed to be a lovable loser underdog.
  • Finally, in case you're interested in the ex-Nat factor, Harper from OMG and I were able to come up with the following list of former Nationals in the playoffs: Alfonso Soriano and Daryle Ward, both Cubs. And technically Maicer Izturis and Juan Rivera were Nationals property when Bowden flipped them for Jose Guillen, though they never actually got their red on. Finally, Gary Bennett (Dodgers) and Esteban Loiaza (White Sox) would receive rings if those teams went all the way, but Bennett's on the DL and Loaiza was waived.


Dave Nichols said...

good god man, don't you have anything better to do? :-)

Brian H said...

I'm surprised you hadn't mentioned it yet, Steve... Did you see Buster Olney's report this am that multiple teams expect Jake Peavy to be traded this offseason?

Given Kevin Towers stated position of refusing to even answer the phone if Bowden calls, I think it's unfortunate that on this day... when a dominant, young SP has been placed on the trade block (not that we have enough to get him)... that we're stuck with a GM who couldn't even initiate trade discussions for the player if he wanted to.