A Quick Review of How Playoff Offense Has Worked

The MLB playoffs select for the best teams, and the rosters of those teams additionally select for the best players. As a consequence, nearly every playoff team is likely to feature an above-average offense, and an above-average pitching staff. In reality, the pitchers tend to be better than the hitters, and this leads to people believing statements like “good pitching beats good hitting.” It’s certainly true that, in October, run-scoring output is reduced, relative to the regular season. Every run is important, and not only because every game is important.

With the first game of the 2017 playoffs just a short while away, I thought I’d quickly review what playoff offense has looked like. I say “review” because I’m sure we’ve covered this ground before, but there’s no harm in going back to the same points every 12 months. This time of year, at the plate, should you be hoping for contact, or should you be hoping for power? Both approaches have managed to win championships, yet one has seemed more helpful than the other.

Here’s what I’ve done. It’s simple! I’ve gone over the past 20 years, breaking them up into four-year chunks. I’ve calculated certain playoff numbers for the teams who made it, and then I calculated the regular-season numbers for those same teams, weighted by how many playoff games they played. The idea is to look at how their offensive performances changed, when the level of competition increased. We can just start with runs per game. What would be more obvious than starting with runs per game?

You see what I imagine you’d expect. Over the two decades, playoff teams scored an average of 4.94 runs per game in the regular season. In the postseason, that average dropped to 4.17, which is a 16% reduction. Over just the past one decade, we’ve seen a 14% reduction, and that matches what it’s been over the past four years. There’s nothing here that should catch you off guard. Playoff teams have better hitters, sure, but there’s no bad pitching in October, and you seldom even get to see guys from the back of the rotation or the back of the bullpen. Runs go down when teams can mostly just use their best starters and relievers.

What’s the mechanism by which runs are reduced? To a small extent, it has to do with walks.

There’s an average of a 4% reduction in walk rate. More recently, it’s been more like 6%. In the playoffs, you get more disciplined hitters, but you also get pitchers with better control and command, so, yeah, the normal and expected stuff applies. Even more pronounced than the changes in walk rate, though, are the changes in strikeout rate.

Over the two decades, the playoffs have increased strikeouts by 16%, and it’s 17% over the past one decade. Over each of the past two Octobers, playoff teams have struck out in nearly a quarter of their plate appearances. This is maybe the most obvious consequence of teams getting to lean on all their best pitchers. The best pitchers are almost all high-strikeout pitchers. Said pitchers also have October adrenaline coursing through their veins. Better pitchers get used more often, and their velocities tend to increase, and when you mix in colder weather that makes hitting even more difficult, you get whiffs. Get ready for so many whiffs.

There’s still one more run-suppressing area, one that’s probably more surprising.

By now you’ve been conditioned to expect a BABIP around .300. And that’s still more or less what we see in every regular season. But while the 20-year playoff-team BABIP in the regular season is .301, in the playoffs it’s dropped to .284. We see essentially the same gap over the past 10 years, but over the past four years, the gap has been 25 points. The playoff teams have averaged a regular-season .303 BABIP, but in October, it’s dropped to .278. Again, the pitchers are better, and they can control contact to some extent. You also have the best position players, which can mean the best defenses, and those same defenses get to focus on a specific opponent more than they usually do. So many additional scouting resources are poured into playoff-series preparation. This could be one of the areas we’re seeing it.

Walks down, strikeouts up, hits in play down. There’s just one more thing. Home runs? Unlike with hits in play, home runs on contact haven’t suffered in the playoffs at all.

There’s a huge reduction in the first chunk of years, but since then, home runs on contact have remained basically stable. So, perhaps the BABIP reduction isn’t reflecting worse contact quality at all, because the dingers have still been there. Home-run rate overall would be down, just because contact has gotten harder and harder to make, but when contact has been there, homers have followed, just as much as they have in the summer. It can give playoff teams some form of hope. One swing of the bat can still put a run on the board, and especially in this day and age, there are more home-run-capable hitters in a lineup than we’re accustomed to seeing.

So as several writers have pointed out in the past: In the playoffs, it might seem like you want to make contact, but the downside there is that it’s particularly difficult to string baserunners together. Pitchers and defenses are far less forgiving. Thus, there’s something to be said for just trying for homers, because a homer is a run, and it can happen at any moment. It’s true that, to hit a home run, you need to make contact first. Yet without the home run, playoff scoring is nearly impossible. This month, you’re going to hear talk about the need for fundamentals, but, more than that, winning teams will need to slug.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

Swing for the fenses to score runs huhh? Very Prescient Mr. Sullivan!