Sunday, October 29, 2023

Month of MLB: Day 27

No baseball today, so let's talk about why the D-backs have done so well in these playoffs.  In the regular season, the Dodgers won 100 games and the D-backs won only 84.  One big advantage for the Dodgers is that they had a better pitching staff.  Over the course of the season, the Dodgers' pitching staff gave up 131 fewer runs than a team of replacement pitchers would have done.  The D-backs' pitching staff gave up 105 fewer runs.  So the Dodgers had the better pitching staff, right?  There's no question about that.

But look at how the pitching staffs are set up.  Here are the best eight pitchers for the Dodgers, with Wins Above Replacement for each one:

1.  Clayton Kershaw:  3.7
2.  Brusdar Graterol:  2.5
3.  Bobby Miller:  2.1
4.  Ryan Brasier:  1.7
5.  Evan Phillips:  1.6
6.  Dustin May:  1.5
7.  Shelby Miller:  1.5
8.  Ryan Pepiot:  1.3

Now here are the eight best pitchers for the D-backs:

1.  Zac Gallen:  4.4
2.  Merrill Kelly:  3.9
3.  Kevin Ginkel:  1.3
4.  Tommy Henry:  1.1
5.  Drey Jameson:  0.8
6.  Ryan Thompson:  0.7
7.  Andrew Saalfrank:  0.5
8.  Miguel Castro:  0.4

As you can see, the D-backs' staff isn't nearly as deep as the Dodgers' staff.  All eight of the Dodger pitchers had a WAR of at least 1.3; only three of the D-backs reached that level.

But in the playoffs, pitching depth just isn't that important.  You've only got a few games, and you have to win today.  So in game one of the playoffs between Arizona and Los Angeles, when the D-backs sent out Merrill Kelly and the Dodgers countered with Clayton Kershaw, the advantage was with Arizona, not L.A.  And then Kershaw got shelled, and Arizona was up a game.  The next night, the Dodgers came back with Bobby Miller (11-4, 3.76 ERA in 22 starts), who is a pretty good pitcher.  But Arizona had Zac Gallen (17-9, 3.47 ERA in 34 starts), who is a much better pitcher.  And Arizona won 4-2.  That set up Game Three.  The Dodgers were out of good starters -- they went with Lance Lynn (13-11, 5.73 ERA), who they had picked up during the season from the White Sox.  His WAR for the season was negative 0.8.  The D-backs had Brandon Pfaadt (3-9, 5.72 ERA in 18 starts), a rookie who didn't look much better on paper.  But Pfaadt only had to throw 4 1/3 innings, and then the D-backs could use their best relief pitchers, and that was enough for a 4-2 win.

Now none of this is to say that the D-backs were actually better than the Dodgers.  Over the course of 162 games, that D-backs bullpen would not win enough games to keep pace with Los Angeles.  But in a short series, Arizona had better starting pitching, and that was enough.

What this means is that in the playoffs, you have to be careful about how you use your pitchers.  A team like Arizona or Texas only has so many good innings in its staff, and you have to use them carefully.  That's why Bruce Bochy gave up on Game Two and let the D-backs roll to an easy 9-1 win -- once Arizona went up 4-1 in the 7th, there was no point in wasting any good Texas pitchers.  And this helps to explain why we have so many blowouts in the playoffs -- if you're going to lose anyway, you may as well lose by 10 runs and save your good arms for the next game.

Again, I want to emphasize that I don't think any of this is fair.  I think it's very likely, for example, that under the current format, the 1977 Reds (with Tom Seaver, Pete Rose, and Joe Morgan) could have rolled through the playoffs, beating both the Dodgers and the Yankees.  But that would not have been fair -- the Dodgers were the better team over the course of the full season.  On the other hand, that outcome would not have been random -- the Reds' stars were better than the Dodgers' stars, which is why so many of them are in the Hall of Fame.

So if MLB continues to stick with this format, I think you'll see the value of second-tier pitchers collapse.  You're much better off having two aces, three really good relievers, and five replacement level players.  Similarly, I'd rather have a lineup with a few hot stars (like last year's Phillies or the 2019 Nats) than a lineup with a bunch of guys who can beat up on mediocre pitching, but can't get it done against an ace.


  1. Actually, I'm very confident that the 1977 Reds would have beaten the Dodgers best three out of five, and I think they would have beaten the 1977 Phillies best four out of seven, but I don't know if they could have beaten the 1977 Yankees. Those Yankees were great in the playoffs. In 1977 and 1978, they won four post-season series in a row, plus a one-game playoff with the Red Sox. In those two years, their post-season record was 15-7, which is a winning percentage of .682. Even the Big Red Machine would have had problems with them.

  2. I know the Reds swept the Yankees in 1976. But that iteration of the Yankees didn't have Reggie Jackson.

  3. Here's the starting lineup for the 1977 Reds:

    1. Pete Rose, 3B (.311, 9 homers, 64 RBI's)
    2. Joe Morgan, 2B (.288, 22, 78)
    3. Ken Griffey, RF (.318, 12, 57)
    4. George Foster, LF (.320, 52, 149)
    5. Johnny Bench, C (.275, 31, 109)
    6. Dan Driessen, 1B (.300, 17, 91)
    7. Dave Concepcion, SS (.271, 8, 64)
    8. Cesar Geronimo, CF (.266, 10, 52)
    9. Tom Seaver, P (14-3, 2.34 in 20 starts after coming over from the Mets)

    That's a very strong lineup.

  4. Yeah, I hate it when there's a big disconnect between what it takes to succeed in a sport's regular season and what it takes to succeed in its postseason (and baseball's is getting very big). There's the argument that you enjoy the two as separate things and honor things like division championships for what they are and tournament championships for what they are. But when there outlets to get into the postseason other than winning your division in the regular season, then I always figure some teams are soft-pedaling the regular to position for the post. And that's no fun.

    It's great that you went to the effort of actually spelling out how this is all playing out in relationship to the Diamondbacks. The NLCS made it feel to me that Arizona was going to win the World Series. I couldn't believe it when one of the Rangers' two biggest stars hit the home run to tie the game in the ninth and then the other hit the home run to win it in the 11th or 12th or whatever. That was amazing. But now I again think Arizona is going to win, even though I understand your point that Bochy was saving his people for Game 3 and beyond.

  5. The question is how many baseball fans are willing to get excited about "playoff baseball" in the same way that hockey fans get excited about "playoff hockey." The hockey fans understand that the regular season is basically meaningless, and they pour all their energy into the post-season. I think that's what MLB would like to see happen with baseball, but I don't know if it will.

    1. For me, this season has been an experiment in focusing on the "playoff baseball" approach. It's basically worked. I'm not as bothered by the failure of the high seeds as I was last year, because now I understand that it's just two different games, there's no point in complaining about it, and I'd rather watch baseball in October than skip it. But I don't think this new system will be as popular as the folks at MLB would like. And even for me, I spent much less time on the regular season than I used to do.

  6. Richard Justice gave me more to think about on this question, and I plan to be thinking about it during tonight's game (among trips to the door to hand out candy).