The question of what makes a team good in the playoffs has kept baseball fans arguing forever. Is it previous postseason experience? The ability to scrap out runs by bunting and stealing? Riding a late-season hot streak? With the Yankees closing in on a playoff spot—but having gone nine seasons since their last world title—it’s a question fans are asking right now. Fortunately, before he turned his eye to politics, FiveThirtyEight.com stat whiz Nate Silver studied the issue as a colleague of mine at the numbers-crunching think tank Baseball Prospectus—and came to a conclusion that Bomber aficionados will like.
Silver and co-researcher Dayn Perry tested dozens of variables using over 30 years of data to see which best corresponded with winning playoff games. They found that age and postseason experience had no effect on a team’s chances; surprisingly, they also found no significant correlation between any measure of team offense (including bunting and stealing) and postseason success. What they did find important were three measures of pitching and defense, which they called the “Secret Sauce”:
A power pitching staff, as measured by normalized strikeout rate, which adjusts a team’s strikeouts per nine innings to account for differing playing environments. (For example, National League teams have higher strikeout rates than American League teams because weak-hitting pitchers bat in the NL.)
A good closer, measured by Reliever Win Expectancy Added, which tracks the increments by which a pitcher changes his team’s chances of winning. Performances in close games or scoring situations count more than those in blowouts or with the bases empty.
A good defense, as measured by Fielding Runs Above Average, a stat that reflects the number of balls in play that a team’s fielders turn into outs. Traditionally, defenses are judged by the number of errors they make, but the spread between the best and worst teams in that regard amounts to only around 40 errors per year. The spread between the best and worst teams at making plays that turn potential hits into outs is more like 275 a year, which has a greater impact on the number of runs a team allows.
These findings make some sense given the postseason’s structure. More- frequent off-days and the threat of elimination compel managers to “shorten” their pitching staffs, using their best starters and relievers almost exclusively. You can’t “shorten” a lineup, though, and the maxim “good pitching beats good hitting” is supported by the numbers; in Silver and Perry’s studies, great pitching teams beat great hitting teams a disproportionate number of times. Meanwhile, the improved pitching thanks to shorter staffs lowers postseason scoring rates by about 10 percent, magnifying the importance of every defensive play (think of it this way: A great catch to preserve a 3-2 lead is more crucial than the same catch in a game that’s 6-4).
Here are the five best “Secret Sauce” squads from this season (the score is simply compiled by adding each team’s league rank, included at right in parentheses; lower scores are better).
The Yanks have clearly set themselves up for success. Their high strikeout rate is the dividend for the signings of CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and their patient development of Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, all of whom possess swing-and-miss arsenals. The starters have offset the losses of Mike Mussina and Chien-Ming Wang while reducing the need to use low-wattage journeymen, while Hughes has become a dominating setup man.
The team’s defense has also improved, from 26th to third since last year. New first-baseman Mark Teixeira has much better range and a more accurate throwing arm than the departed Jason Giambi, and his ability to snare less-than-perfect throws from fellow infielders strengthens the entire unit. Meanwhile, Nick Swisher and Melky Cabrera have manned right field; they both have better range than the departed Bobby Abreu, one of the majors’ worst outfielders. (Rookie Brett Gardner’s play in center has freed up Cabrera to take some of those starts in right.)
As for closers, Mariano Rivera is the best in postseason history already. Crucially, he’s frequently summoned into eighth-inning jams—which can be more key to winning a game than getting outs in the ninth with the bases empty. He has 114 saves of at least four outs since 1995, more than the second- and third-ranked closers combined during that span.
None of this is meant to knock the offense, which has helped make them a near-lock for the playoffs. But it’s the Secret Sauce that bodes well for their chances once they get there. The last time the team made such a drastic leap in the Sauce rankings was 1996—which, fans will remember, was the end of their last excruciatingly long World Series drought.