Small-Sample Theater Comes to the Postseason

With its assortment of winner-take-all, best-of-five and best-of-seven series, playoff baseball is inherently small-sample theater. Obviously, the wins and losses mean a whole lot to the teams and their fans, but there’s danger in ascribing too much meaning to the numbers that underly them given the circumstances. Nonetheless, we can’t help but notice certain trends, and wonder how they may connect to what we spent six months observing over the course of the regular season. While far from comprehensive, here are a handful of things that caught my eye through the first four days of Division Series play.

Astros vs. Indians: Nearly Hitless in Houston

Through the first two games of their Division Series, the Indians have been almost completely stifled by the Astros’ pitching. In Game 1, they didn’t get their first hit off Justin Verlander until Yan Gomes‘ single to lead off the sixth inning. In Game 2, they didn’t collect a hit after Melky Cabrera‘s infield single off Gerrit Cole in the fifth. In all, they’ve totaled just six hits, which puts them in jeopardy of having the fewest in a Division Series if their bats don’t perk up in Game 3. Likewise, for Division Series records for fewest total bases; they currently have nine, with Francisco Lindor’s Game 2 homer, which briefly gave them a 1-0 lead, their only extra-base hit. Here are the lowest totals for hits in a three-game ALDS or NLDS:

Fewest Hits in Division Series, 1995-2018
Team Year H Opponent
Reds 2010 11 Phillies
Rangers 1998 13 Yankees
Dodgers 1996 14 Braves
Rangers 1999 14 Yankees
Rockies 2018 14 Brewers

And for total bases:

Fewest Total Bases in Division Series, 1995-2018
Team Year TB Opponent
Rangers 1998 16 Yankees
Rockies 2018 18 Brewers
Reds 2010 19 Phillies
Rangers 1999 19 Yankees
Astros 1997 20 Braves

Note that the 2010 Reds’ numbers include being no-hit by Roy Halladay, which was just the second time in postseason history that happened (the first, of course, was Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series). Those Reds also hold the record for the lowest Division Series batting average (.124) and on-base percentage (.160), with the 1998 Rangers owning the lowest slugging percentage (.177). This year’s Indians (.100/.150/.156) risk underperforming all of those marks, though of course, one decent offensive showing could change the picture completely.

(The Rockies, who were eliminated on Sunday, hit .146/.210/.188 in their three games against the Brewers, putting them close on the batting average and slugging percentage fronts, albeit with no cigar.)

One thing that’s surprising about Cleveland’s meager performance is that they were actually one of the more successful teams when facing velocity, which Cole (who ranked second in the majors with an average four-seam fastball velo of 97.0 mph) and Verlander (13th at 95.4) have in spades. Via Statcast, the Indians ranked fourth in the majors against fastballs (of all types) 95 mph and above in terms of both batting average (.260) and slugging percentage (.428). Between Verlander, Cole, and relievers Lance McCullers Jr., Ryan Pressly, and Roberto Osuna, the Astros have thrown 150 fastballs of 95 mph or higher in the series thus far, by far the most of any team (the Yankees are second at 122), accounting for 29.5% of their pitches. On the fastballs the Indians have put into play, they’re 4-for-24 (.167), with all four hits singles — which is actually better than their overall slash line.

Red Sox vs. Yankees: Keeping it 100

Via YES Network researcher James Smyth, the Red Sox-Yankees series is just the 11th time in postseason history that two teams that won 100 or more games have met in the postseason. While it’s always worth remembering that anything can happen in a short series, it’s particularly true here, because in those matchups, the teams that won more games in the regular season are 4-5 thus far (one matchup featured two teams with identical win totals):

Postseason Matchups Between Teams With 100+ Wins
Year Series Higher Lower
1910 WS Cubs 104 Athletics 102
1912 WS Red Sox 105 Giants 103
1931 WS Athletics 107 Cardinals 101
1941 WS Yankees 101 Dodgers 100
1969 WS Orioles 109 Mets 100
1970 WS Orioles 108 Reds 102
1971 ALCS Orioles 101 Athletics 101
1976 NLCS Reds 102 Phillies 101
1977 ALCS Royals 102 Yankees 100
2017 WS Dodgers 104 Astros 101
2018 ALDS Red Sox 108 Yankees 100
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Teams shaded in yellow won the series.

Red Sox vs. Yankees: Smacking the Southpaws

The Red Sox and Yankees ranked first and second in the AL in scoring (5.41 and 5.25 runs per game, respectively), with the latter leading the league in wRC+ (111) and the Red Sox just a point behind them, tied with the Astros and A’s. Yet one big difference between the offenses of the two AL East rivals is their platoon splits. The Red Sox have a seven-point wRC+ advantage over the Yankees when facing righties (116 to 109) while the Yankees own a 23-point advantage over the Red Sox against lefties (115 to 92). New York’s wRC+ was second in the majors behind only Houston in that category (123), while Boston’s ranked a mediocre 19th. The two teams had similar batting averages and on-base percentages against southpaws; the difference was power. The Yankees, who out-homered the Red Sox 82-37 in that department, lit up southpaws at a .248/.331./.470 clip, compared to the Red Sox’s .250/.325/.395.

In Chris Sale and David Price, the Red Sox have started lefties in both games thus far, and the Yankees teed off on the latter as well as reliever Eduardo Rodriguez. The trio has combined to allow three homers and eight runs in 8.2 innings, with Yankee hitters batting .286/.375/.543 in 40 PA against them. That said, the Red Sox piled up five runs on J.A. Happ in the series opener and have hit .263/.364/.474 in 22 PA against him, Zach Britton, and Aroldis Chapman thus far.

There’s some good news on this front for the Red Sox going forward, since they won’t start another lefty against the Yankees until Game 5 — Sale, their ace — if the series gets that far. They’ll have righties Nathan Eovaldi and Rick Porcello going in Games 3 and 4, while the Yankees will have righty Luis Severino for Game 3 and lefty CC Sabathia for Game 4.

Brewers vs. Rockies: Strange Brew

Of the 10 teams that made the postseason, the two that got the fewest innings from their starters during the regular season – the A’s (824.1) and Brewers (847) – were the two who used openers to start a playoff game, with varying results. With Liam Hendriks pitching the first inning of the AL Wild Card game, things didn’t go very well for the A’s, as he allowed the first two runs in a 7-2 Yankees win. Brewers pitcher Brandon Woodruff, on the other hand, delivered three hitless, scoreless innings against the Rockies in the NL Division Series opener.

The Brewers’ other two starts in their sweep of the Rockies didn’t stick around all that long either. Jhoulys Chacin went five innings in Friday’s Game 2 and Wade Miley threw 4.2 innings in Sunday’s Game 3. Thanks in large part to the team’s bullpen, which for the series allowed just two runs in 15.1 innings, with a 22/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the Brewers set a record for the fewest innings from their starters by a winning team in a Division Series. Check this table out:

Fewest Innings by Starting Pitchers in Division Series
Rk Team Year G IP ERA FIP Series
1 Padres 2005 3 10.0 13.50 7.70 L
2T Diamondbacks 2017 3 10.3 9.58 7.65 L
2T Rangers 2016 3 10.3 13.94 11.81 L
4 Braves 2000 3 11.0 13.09 9.75 L
5 Red Sox 2017 4 11.3 12.71 9.55 L
6 Red Sox 2016 3 11.7 9.26 6.20 L
7 Reds 2010 3 12.0 4.50 5.12 L
8 Cubs 2007 3 12.3 7.30 5.63 L
9T Brewers 2018 3 12.7 0.00 3.12 W
9T Angels 2004 3 12.7 6.39 6.28 L
11 Cardinals 2000 3 13.3 4.73 3.80 W
12T Angels 2014 3 13.7 3.95 1.96 L
12T Dodgers 2006 3 13.7 6.59 4.96 L
12T Mets 2006 3 13.7 1.98 2.98 W

Of the 10 teams to get fewer than 13 innings from their starters, only the Brewers won, and of the 15 teams with fewer than 15 innings, only the 2000 Cardinals and 2006 Mets join them in victory. The Cardinals, who faced the Braves, got just 2.2 innings in Game 1 from Rick Ankiel, who was pulled after walking six batters in the game that began his unraveling; fortunately, his teammates touched up Greg Maddux for seven runs (five earned). St. Louis got seven strong innings from Darryl Kile in Game 2 opposite Tom Glavine, and then just 3.2 innings from Garrett Stephenson in Game 3, though he allowed just one run while opposite number Kevin Millwood allowed four in 4.2 innings. As for the Mets, whose starters threw as many innings as the losing Dodgers in their series, they got 4.1 innings of one-run ball from John Maine in Game 1, six shutout innings from Glavine in Game 2, and 3.1 innings of two-run work from Steve Trachsel — and they too got to Maddux early (four innings, four runs).

The Brewers became the first team whose starters didn’t allow a run in a Division Series, though that one obviously deserves an asterisk. The teams that previously had the lowest total, the 1998 and 1999 Yankees, each allowed one run in a combined 20.2 innings (1998) and 22.1 innings (1999) against those Rangers teams represented above.

Dodgers vs. Braves: Going Long

While short starts have been in vogue thus far this October — 10 of the 24 (including the two Wild Card Games) have lasted fewer than five innings — the Dodgers have practically lapped the field in terms of starter usage. Between Hyun-Jin Ryu, Clayton Kershaw, and Walker Buehler, they’ve gotten 20 innings of work from their starters, four more than the next-closest NL team through three games (the Rockies, counting only their NLDS turns) and 10.2 more than their opponents, the Braves. Accounting for the fact that the AL teams have each played only two games in their series so far — I did say that we’re in small-sample theater, after all — the Dodgers’ average start of 6.67 innings beats that of the top AL team, the Astros (6.05) and is two full frames more than the overall postseason average.

The best start thus far, in terms of both length (eight innings) and Game Score (Version 2), has been Kershaw’s Game 2 gem from Friday night. While we don’t have a sortable log of GsV2 on site, I’ve taken the trouble to convert each start using the Baseball-Reference Play Index. Here’s the leaderboard at both ends of the spectrum, including the Wild Card games:

Best and Worst 2018 Postseason Starts by GSv2
Rk Player Tm Gm IP H R BB SO HR GSv2
1 Clayton Kershaw LAD NLDS 2 8 2 0 0 3 0 85
2 Hyun-Jin Ryu LAD NLDS 1 7 4 0 0 8 0 80
3 Gerrit Cole HOU ALDS 2 7 3 1 0 12 1 79
4 Kyle Freeland COL NLWC 6.2 4 0 1 6 0 74
5 Jon Lester CHC NLWC 6 4 1 1 9 0 70
23T Mike Foltynewicz ATL NLDS 1 2 3 4 3 5 2 19
23T David Price BOS ALDS 2 1.2 3 3 2 0 2 19
22 J.A. Happ NYY ALDS 1 2 4 5 1 2 1 23
21 Corey Kluber CLE ALDS 1 4.2 6 4 2 2 3 24
20 Liam Hendriks OAK ALWC 1 1 2 1 1 1 31

Note that I’m using the regular season constants for each league, which differ by a couple of points (40 for the AL, 38 for the NL), so that value of the average start centers right at 50. Using that figure, the postseason starts, despite their relative brevity, have been slightly above-average thus far at 52.2, even with the aforementioned opener and bullpen games. Even with Buehler’s brutal second inning on Sunday night, the Dodgers’ average of 69.7 is tops among NL teams, while the Astros’ 72.0 is tops in the AL. The Braves (31.7) and Indians (39.5) bring up the rear in their respective leagues, at least if you exclude the A’s in the Junior Circuit.

Back to Kershaw, whose body of postseason work hasn’t measured up to his regular-season dominance; including the above start, he owns a 4.08 ERA in 130 postseason innings, compared to a 2.39 ERA in 2,096.1 regular season innings. His GSv2 for Friday’s game was the highest from among his 20 postseason starts, topping the 81 he posted in Game 2 of the 2016 NLCS against the Cubs (seven shutout innings with two hits, one walk and six strikeouts). With the annual GSv2 constants (which have ranged from 35.9 to 40.5 during the period in which he’s made his postseason starts) in place, I calculated that he’s averaged an unremarkable 54.8 for his postseason career, with six of his starts 69 or higher and seven of them 48 or lower.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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5 years ago

It’ll be interesting to see if Judge starts to get Barry Bonds treatment at the plate.

5 years ago
Reply to  stever20

He’s a few Bonds-ian seasons away from that.

5 years ago
Reply to  CamH

Interesting to note though that Trout is starting to get Bondsian treatment. His OBP, walk totals, and IBB totals have been going up. Part of that is because he is somehow still getting better as absurd as that may sound, but part of that is teams are starting to treat him the way that they treated Bonds.