Saturday, October 08, 2011

Shut Up About These Post Season "Facts"

Every thing in life can boil down to a cliche. "Wear a jacket or you'll catch yourself a cold." We hear them all the time. Over time, the cliches become facts. William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia after delivering his inauguration speech in the cold. See? You can die from pneumonia if you were warm every day of your life. The two aren't related. Baseball is no different than anything else in life. Cliches are formed and they become facts. What follows is not a scientific dissertation, but simply a bah humbug of some of these "facts" we hear every game both during and after the contests.

The first one is that clutch hitting wins in the post season. The Diamondbacks, Yankees and Philles all lost because they couldn't get the big hits they needed. That part is true, but the fact that these three teams weren't "clutch" is ridiculous. Playoffs are random events that define the meaning of short sample size. The same Robinson Cano that hit the dramatic grand slam in an earlier game grounded out in a big spot in the finale. First off, a batter's performance isn't static simply by what the batter does. The pitcher has a large part of whether the batter succeeds or doesn't. So does the defense deployed against him. Sometimes the pitcher or defense wins. Sometimes the batter does.

Good pitching will beat good hitting. How many times have we heard this one? The fact is that the playoffs through history feature a lot of series where the losing team ultimately outscored the winning one in the course of five or seven games. The Yankees - Tigers series is yet another example. Yes, there were times when the Tigers pitched well and times they didn't. And they still won the series. A whole series of events have to occur for one team to come out ahead of another. One of them can be a hot pitcher or reliever or a series of them. But again, you have to also state that a pitcher only has a partial control over the results. The batter or a team of batters could have executed a poor game plan and approach. 

Manager X had a better series than Manager Y. Managers don't play the game. Players do. Managers make some decisions that might work out really well or really poorly. But those outcomes are difficult to predict. Tony LaRussa was an idiot in one game of his series against the Phillies and then a genius when it all ended. Joe Maddon is considered one of the best managers in baseball. And yet Maddon's team is the only one that didn't make it to a Game Five in the division series. That would still be a fact even if every decision he made was the right one. Teams win and teams lose and managers only have a small part of that outcome.

Big time pitchers shine in the post season. Let's go back to the 1964 World Sereis. That series is famous because Bob Gibson pitched a spectacular game to beat the Yankees. The victory sealed his reputation as a "big time pitcher" in the post season. How come nobody remembers that just a few days before that win, he pitched and lost a game? Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, big time pitchers. And yes, the last few years, they've won their share of post season games. But are they any different now because they've lost four out of their last  five post season appearances? Hardly. They are among this generation's best pitchers. As such, they will win some playoff games. They will lose some too. Mickey Lolich won three games in the 1968 World Series. He was a big time pitcher. He pitched just as well in the 1972 ALCS against the Oakland A's and still went 0-1 in that series.

The team that wins a series was the better team. Sometimes. But just as often, the lesser of the two teams win. Like this writer is fond of stating, failure is built into baseball. It's the unseen fabric that holds it all together. Even the best teams will lose sixty ballgames. And in a short series, the best team can lose. Do people really believe that the Cardinals were a better team than the Phillies? They shouldn't. But they won. Can't we separate the two? Were the New York Giants better than the New England Patriots in that Super Bowl? Hardly. But in one game anything can happen and it did. The same thing holds here.

Intangibles and team spirit win post season series. Oh come on, please. Intangibles might have their day here and there. But random events occur in these short sample sizes that put one team in the winner's circle and the other sent packing. Can anyone question the pluck and character of the Arizona Diamondbacks this season? But they lost their series. It happens. The two aren't related. For every Chris Carpenter that says he's never played with a greater group of guys there are the 1978 Yankees, the 1986 Mets and those Oakland A's championship teams where there was open animosity on the team.

Baseball is a sport played by a team. The games aren't contested by a couple of gladiators or quick draw duelists. In singular sports, those contests are usually won by the person that should have won. But baseball like other team sports is not played with those same kinds of absolutes. In a short series, all kinds of things happen and the unexpected happens just as much as the expected. Just enjoy the contests for what they are and enjoy the high drama of it all. Don't listen to announcers and writers that drive narratives because that is what they are paid to do. The fact about playoff baseball is that there are no facts. That's why they play the games.  

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