These Are the Most Talented Playoff Teams of the Wild-Card Era

It’s been apparent from the beginning that these playoffs have included some awfully talented teams. Travis wrote a couple weeks ago about the possible arrival of the era of the super-team, and I examined the landscape myself at the start of the month, when I did my best to rate all 10 of the playoff teams based on their numbers and their expected playing times. We’re watching a lot of elite-level talent this month, and it only helps that the two weakest participants were eliminated in the wild-card games. Only quality left.

But now I want to look at this in a different way. I ran some numbers in the way that I did last October. I’d actually forgotten about that analysis until last night, when I mis-clicked on a spreadsheet I’d saved before. Nothing quite like stumbling your way into a new and timely article.

We’re well into the playoffs, now, and while there are games yet to play, we have a pretty good sense of how playing time will be distributed. We have this sense because the playing time has already been distributed. Based on that, I wanted to see what kind of overall skill we’re talking about, when we talk about the talent in the playoffs. So, for hitters, I looked at their playoff plate appearances, and I linked them to their regular-season wRC+ marks. Then I calculated a wRC+ weighted average, to measure the season performance of the playoff hitters.

That doesn’t read very clearly, I don’t think, but the graph ought to help. I have information for the wild-card era, stretching back 23 years.

The league-average wRC+ is usually around 96, and the league-average wRC+ for a non-pitcher is always set to 100. What you can tell from the graph above is that, as you’d expect, the playoffs are selective for above-average hitters. Overall, and weighted by playing time, playoff hitters have put up regular-season wRC+ marks of 109, which works out to being 9% better than average. For this year, the current mark is 111. Just to try to make this comprehensible, the batters who have actually batted this October collectively ran a regular-season wRC+ of 111. To put it simply, the average batter in these playoffs is about as good as Jake Lamb. Ideally, I could use projections, instead of single-season data points, but that would make things a lot more complicated, and there shouldn’t be much noise in here, anyway.

This year’s average postseason batter was 11% better than the mean. There are 41 players in the playoffs who have batted at least 20 times. Of those, just seven are coming off a sub-100 wRC+. Four of those are Cubs.

I ran a similar analysis for pitchers, using both ERA- and FIP-. I weighted by innings pitched, instead of batters faced, because I got my information from Baseball Reference and batters faced wasn’t part of the readout. That shouldn’t introduce much in the way of skewing.

The league-average ERA- is fixed at 100. The same goes for FIP-. So you can tell right away that the playoffs are selective for excellent pitchers — pitchers who are even better than the hitters, relative to the norm. For the whole sample, playoff pitchers have put up a regular-season ERA- of 80, and they’ve put up a regular-season FIP- of 85. I assume the gap there is explained in part by pro-ERA bias, and in part by playoff teams probably having better-than-average defenses.

In any case, look toward the right. Last year, the numbers were 71 and 79, respectively. This year, they’re 72 and 76. Those are the lowest ERA- marks in the sample, and they’re also the lowest FIP- marks in the sample. This year’s average playoff pitcher has basically been as good as Zack Greinke. You have to think this probably has something to do with the increased innings going to relievers. On a per-inning basis, relievers are more effective than starters are, and managers are learning and taking advantage of that. It doesn’t work out all the time, but it means that, in the playoffs, it’s getting harder and harder to score runs.

In these playoffs, 37 pitchers have thrown at least five innings. Only Masahiro Tanaka had a regular-season ERA- north of 100. Not a single pitcher among them had a regular-season FIP- north of 100. There’s no bad pitching in the playoffs. Only good pitching that might be tired and worn down.

There’s a neat and simple thing we can do. For offense, wRC+ measures performance relative to average. For pitching, you can say the same of ERA- and FIP-. But a good wRC+ is above 100, while a good ERA- or FIP- is under 100. By just adding the two numbers together, then, we can get a sense of the playoff run environment. An average run environment would work out to 200. Anything under that would lean pitcher-friendly. Here, again, is the wild-card era.

The average blend of wRC+ and ERA- comes out to 189. For wRC+ and FIP-, it’s 195. In recent history, the playoffs have been more pitcher-friendly than hitter-friendly. This season, the marks are 183 and 188, respectively. This is a tougher run environment than usual. It’s a little friendlier than last October, because even though these pitchers appear better, these hitters are better, too. So it’s canceled out, and then some.

One final and similar analysis. Why not try to simply measure overall playoff talent level? Easy to do. With wRC+, you compare to the average. Same with ERA- and FIP-. To walk you through, this year’s playoff hitters were 11% better than the mean during the year. This year’s playoff pitchers were 28% better than the mean during the year by ERA-, and 24% better than the mean during the year by FIP-. You can take the average of the two. By wRC+ and ERA-, this year’s playoff players are 20% better than the mean. By wRC+ and FIP-, they’re 17% better than the mean.

That’s this year. Here are all the wild-card years.

Overall, using wRC+ and ERA-, playoff players have been 15% better than average. Using wRC+ and FIP-, they’ve been 12% better than average. This year’s marks of 20% and 17%, respectively, are the highest in each category. Based on that, then, these would appear to be the most talented playoff players since the strike. The biggest dip, as you can see, came in 2006, when the World Series was won by a Cardinals team that finished 83-78. This year is nothing like that year. This year, the players seem to be better than they’ve been, which is precisely why it was so difficult to pick favorites from the eight teams in the division series. All of the teams were very good and very deep. This year in particular, talent flowed upward.

The last thing to be said is that this year’s numbers aren’t finalized. Still many games to play. But those games aren’t going to have new players in them. They’ll be drawing from the best pool of playoff players in recent memory.

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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Roger McDowell Hot Foot
6 years ago

“playoff pitchers have put up a regular-season ERA- of 80, and they’ve put up a regular-season FIP- of 85. I assume the gap there is explained in part by pro-ERA bias, and in part by playoff teams probably having better-than-average defenses.”

Alternatively, couldn’t it also be explained by ERA being a record of runs actually allowed? The playoffs will tend to feature the teams that benefited from *actual* run prevention even if that *wasn’t* reflective of whatever underlying “skill” you want to think the arguably-more-predictive stats like FIP measure. (Maybe this is what “pro-ERA bias” meant but I took that to mean something like biased selection by the managers, rather than by the playoff sample.)

Pwn Shop
6 years ago

How is Roger getting downvoted? To me, this was a bigger thing than the article itself. These are the ways we can find biases in our numbers, and hopefully improve them. This is a good explanation but may only be part of the story.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
6 years ago
Reply to  Pwn Shop

This place always gets a lot more Fan and less Graphs during the playoffs.

6 years ago

Looks like it finally evened out and went positive thankfully.