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The Playoffs: Let's Look at It This Way
2006-10-02 16:51
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Doing position-by-position breakdowns is so...last year. Or at least it's what I did last year. And maybe I still will after "How I Met Your Mother" and "Heroes." But for the time being, let's avoid the obvious and hackneyed technique of comparing the teams in the playoffs to the teams they will actually play in the first round. Does it really matter whether Ronnie Belliard is better than Josh Barfield or vice versa? No, of course it doesn't. The MLB playoffs are not settled by positional matchups. Everyone knows what really makes the difference: intangibles. Every baseball writer worth their salt knows who will win the World Series right now. In articles they will write after the formalities of the actual games are played out, it will be made clear how one team and only one team possessed the correct mixture of team chemistry, hustle, clutch hitting, moving the runners over, playing them one game at a time, making it about the name on the front of the uniform and not the name on the back, hitting the cutoff man, and doing the little things that don't show up in the boxscore and they (the writers) knew it all along. They can't tell us now, though. It has something to do with union rules, I think.

Who are we kidding? In five- and seven-game series between teams that are all very near in each other in overall quality, every result is the product of blind random luck more than anything else. Picking a winner in these playoff series is about as scientific as alchemy or that thing with the sheep entrails. You know, where they would like, read them? Why don't we have a national column where someone uses sheep entrails to pick NFL games against the spread? I would be super into that.

There are eight teams in the playoffs this year. Their goal all season has been win enough games so that they could play a handful more. Isn't that weird? Play 162 games, finish as one of the four best teams in your league (or thereabouts), and you get to play maybe as few as three more. This in comparison to the NBA postseason, which lasts for three months, or the NHL postseason, which is longer than the NHL regular season and features about the same number of teams. Would it make me deeply happy if the Dodgers and Padres got swept, meaning they won exactly the same number of postseason games as their divisional little siblings in Colorado did in 2006? Maybe a little. It would make me happier still if the Tigers got beaten into oblivion by the Yankees. I just really dislike this Tigers team. I can't even articulate why.

The way I see it, each of the four teams in each league fits into one of four categories. The similarities are eerie, once you stop to really think about it. Does this mean that the fate that will meet a particular AL team will befall its NL twin as well? No. It doesn't mean anything. It's just a device around which a blog post can be constructed. Try and keep up.

The Favorites

The Mets and the Yankees have a lot of things in common. They play pretty near each other, if my understanding of east coast geography holds up. They each spent the most money in their respective leagues. They have free agent centerfielders who were great postseason heroes for other franchises. Each recently received bad news about a pitching ace that gave us momentary pause about their status as favorites. For the Yankees, it wasn't such a big deal. Randy Johnson will still pitch, but even so, he hasn't been the ace of the staff this season anyway. Besides that, the Yankees' strength isn't their starting pitching, it's their powerful lineup and the back end of their bullpen. Now as for the Mets, they won't have Pedro Martinez for the rest of this year or for much of the next one. However, check it out. Martinez wasn't the ace of the staff this year. The Mets' strength is still a powerful lineup and the back end of their bullpen. Do you see how this can be a useful exercise?

The Favorites for People Who Don't Like Picking the Favorites

The six teams in the playoffs that aren't the favorites all have weaknesses. Otherwise, they wouldn't be not the favorites. If you view things rationally it's hard to see what separates the Dodgers from the Padres and Cardinals and the Twins from the A's and Tigers. But see, these teams have a Thing. It's hard to argue with the screaming intangibles of a capital-letter-T Thing. Minnesota has Johan Santana. The penalty for any ESPN baseball personality going on TV or the radio to break down the division series and not spouting the line about "Johan Santana in a five-game series" is, I infer, painful electrocution. They never go on to explain what Santana's powers might be in a seven-game series, which the ALCS still is, but if you're going to pick against the Yankees, your options are limited. If the A's and Tigers are so great, then where are their Things? Yeah, that's what I thought. The Dodgers' Thing isn't a person, it's an event. That game with all the home runs. For about a day and a half afterwards, all of baseball nation was caught up in an NL West race with which all those of us who are actually fans of teams in the NL West had been bored to tears since the All-Star Break. Does it matter that in the grand scheme of things, the game with all the home runs didn't make any difference? The Dodgers won the wild card by more than one game, and the Padres ended up winning the division (on a tiebreaker) anyway. Even though the Padres won the season series, excluding games that won't be rerun on ESPN Classic for long after we are all dead, 13-4, the Dodgers are considered the favorite among the non-favorites in the NL. Why? They have a Thing.

The Backer-Inners

Every year there's at least one team that arrives in the playoffs having played indifferently or worse down the stretch. But this year is different. There's two dramatic examples, and in both cases, neither had their postseason place secured when their swoon began. The Tigers managed to blow a colossal division lead and only a comparable cold streak by the White Sox allowed them to make the playoffs at all. The Cardinals were this close to completing a final-week choke job that would have been impossible to top. In either case, does this mean that these teams have no chance of advancing? I think it's safe to say that in the case of the Tigers, a team that was playing above its heads for most of the summer finally found its level at the end of the year. The Cardinals on the other hand were slightly overrated due to their success in the past several seasons. No one paid much attention to the fact that St. Louis never pulled away in an NL Central that might have been worse than last year's NL West, at least until a Houston winning streak nearly capitalized on that lack of separation. As things have shaken out, both are now matched up against teams that are playing their best baseball right now. Detroit plays the Yankees, who are finally rounding into the form we expected from them all year, and the Cardinals face the Padres, who despite their loss in the Thing game went 20-9 in September and October. Another thing that these teams have in common that won't help them in the playoffs is rotations that are built more for depth. Detroit and St. Louis both lack aces, and that tends to be something you look for in October.

The Teams Where People Are Talking About How No One's Talking About Them

Every year the good sleeper picks in the playoffs are likely to be champions of the western divisions. People just don't watch as many west coast games, including baseball writers. Even though they've now won back-to-back division titles, this Padres team is a complete mystery to the majority of baseball fans. The story with the A's is a weird one. People are familiar with the team's past from Moneyball and their numerous cameo appearances in other AL teams' dramatic postseason runs. Those early-decade A's teams were built around on-base percentage and three star starting pitchers. They didn't win, however. This current team has a terrible OBP and only one of those star pitchers remains. Paradoxically, a lot people seem to be picking the A's for this reason. They didn't win with that old strategy, but now they're different, since they managed to win a whole bunch of games without any obviously dominant performers besides Frank Thomas, who a lot of people in Boston and New York may think retired three years ago. Talking about what the A's don't have isn't talking about what the A's do have, though, so they qualify for this category.

2006-10-03 09:02:33
1.   Todd S
I don't think St. Louis lacks an ace. That Carpenter guy has been pretty good for 3 straight years.
2006-10-03 10:31:36
2.   Mark T.R. Donohue
If Carpenter had had a true ace-y kind of year, the Cardinals would not have had two eight-game losing streaks. As I see it.
2006-10-09 09:42:02
3.   Todd S
Got any other statistical evidence for your viewpoint? Besides team wins and losses? I looked up SNLVAR at BP. In 2006, Carpenter was 5th in the majors. The only playoff pitcher ahead of him is Johan Santana. I think Carpenter is a true ace, and had a true ace-y kind of year in 2006.

Your blog, though. Your viewpoint trumps mine. :)

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