Which playoff teams have what it takes to win it all?
Every time you think you have a handle on what it takes to win in baseball's postseason, along comes, say, the 2006 Cardinals, the 1988 Dodgers or the '87 Twins, to prove there's no sure-fire way to pick a World Series winner. Success in the playoffs, in many ways, comes down to a roll of the dice. Luck will play as big a part in the next three weeks as a clever manager, a deep bench or a slugger on a tear.
Still, there are smart ways to pick the teams that will fare best in the playoffs. Nate Silver and the hard-thinkers over at Baseball Prospectus have looked at tons of data and come up with a formula that identifies the three main characteristics of a successful playoff team. They are:
1. Pitchers that strike out batters.
2. A stud closer.
3. A good defense.
You might notice there's no mention of home runs or the ability to squeeze a guy to second with one out against a left-hander. There's not anything in there about crafty managers or experience or a versatile bench, either. Momentum? History? Don't even bother. Speed? Pssh. Clutchness? Please, save it.
The "Secret Sauce," as BP call its concoction, has worked out pretty well over the years by bypassing some of the more common stats and digging deeper. The Sauce not only takes into account a pitching staff's strikeout rates, for example, but it adjusts that number based on league differential and ballpark factors. The defensive stat, through a series of different metrics, estimates how many runs fielders save (or cost) their pitchers as compared to other defenses. The stat measuring closers attempts to determine how many wins a closer has saved compared to a league-average replacement pitcher.
In churning out all the numbers, the Sauce comes up with this truism: In the postseason it's more important to prevent runs, through shut-down pitching and good defense than it is to have an offense that can score a lot of runs.
In mathematical terms, I believe this is shown as: good pitching (and defense) > good hitting.
I probably ought to tell you right now the Red Sox have the best Secret Sauce score among this year's playoff teams, followed by the Cubs and Angels. The Brewers, Phillies and Dodgers bring up the rear.
None of this is to say that the Red Sox and Cubs will absolutely, positively meet in the World Series. No one, including BP, saw the '06 Cardinals coming. St. Louis finished 25th in the Secret Sauce rankings that season, last among playoff teams. The '88 Dodgers were eighth overall and third among the four playoff teams. The '87 Twins ranked 12th overall, third of four playoff teams.
Still, to get an idea of who has what it takes and who doesn't, here's a quick look at this year's eight playoff teams, listed in order of BP's overall Secret Sauce rankings. I've included BP's rankings in each of the Sauce's three categories, too. I've also thrown in some other, more traditional points to ponder in making your postseason picks:
Boston Red Sox
Overall Secret Sauce rank: 1.
Rank by category: Strikeout pitching (1), closer (9), defense (5)
What else to look for: The big factor here is health. The strikeout ratings include numbers put up by Josh Beckett, whose oblique injury will put him out of the Division Series against the Angels until at least Game 3. J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell -- two very good defenders -- are also hobbled by injuries.
Boston fans would like to believe that all that October experience counts for something, too. The Sox have won two World Series titles since 2004, after all, and their roster is filled with players who were there when they won last season. But experience is overrated. Remember, defending World Series champs have not racked up a single postseason win in the year following their Series win since 2002.
Overall Secret Sauce rank: 2.
Rank by category: Strikeout pitching (2), closer (15), defense (2)
What else to look for: The uncertainty surrounding Carlos Zambrano -- is he hurt, is he tired, what? -- won't help the Cubs' power pitching in the postseason. In addition, the Cubs' defense -- it's ranked second, behind the Rays', in BP's defensive efficiency -- is more suspect now with the calf injury to versatile defender Mark De Rosa and a hand injury to catcher Geovany Soto.
The Cubs have the best on-base percentage (.354), the best OPS (.797) and the best OPS with runners in scoring position (.819) in the NL, which suggests they're not all about blasting the ball out of the park (they were fifth in home runs). The home-field advantage means a little something, too, but the jinxes and the 100-year drought? Whatever.
Los Angeles Angels
Overall Secret Sauce rank: 4
Rank by category: Strikeout pitching (9), closer (3), defense (7)
What else to look for: The Angels have a reputation as a team that can manufacture runs, but the fact is they rank 11th in OBP (.330), and you have to have players on to get them in. They also rank 11th in OPS with runners in scoring position and two outs (.689), which puts a crimp in the clutch-hitting argument. Those are year-long numbers, though, and Mark Teixeira's presence has boosted that.
What the Angels have shown is an ability to win on the road (50-31). They're the only playoff team in the AL with a winning record away from home. Also, give some weight to Mike Scioscia's managing ability -- he led the Angels to a 2002 World Series win -- though you probably shouldn't give it a whole lot. Their biggest asset, by far, is the 1-2 power-pitching punch of John Lackey and Ervin Santana.