The MLB postseason fallacy

If you’re tuned in to postseason baseball, you’ve heard the television announcers try to explain most of the action as if there is a mystical quality to it all. In the quest for what is reality?, you are 95% more likely to hear a convenient narrative than the fact of the matter. If an inferior hitter gets a knock against an established pitcher, said batter therefore has some inherent quality to focus, or lock himself in during big, “playoff” moments; if an inferior pitcher gets a big out against an established hitter, he is somehow more of a man than if he allowed a base hit. It’s stupid, and we know it’s stupid, but these erroneous statements are probably never going to cease to exist, because the large, mostly casual viewing audience clearly has a need for such nonsense. Basic math is never sexy, neither to listen to nor to figure out.

That’s why it was only a week ago I felt the need to write this:

[If] we concede that the baseball playoffs are a crapshoot (which they have proven to be), it really means a team only has to get hot for, at the absolute maximum, 19 games (11 wins). Thanks to the beauty of small sample sizes, that reasonably suggests Kansas City has a 50% chance of winning the ALDS, a 50% chance of winning the ALCS, and another 50% of defeating whomever they would theoretically play in the World Series.

At the time I mentioned this, the Royals were an 18/1 dog to win the World Series, and I encouraged anyone reading just how good of a bet that was. Mix in a coin flip win against the A’s in the wild card game and a sweep of the Angels in the ALDS, and the Royals are down to 4/1 to win it all. That’s how quick this shit happens.

But back to the narrative.

I was going to school in Virginia back in 2008, the first year the Tampa Bay Rays made the postseason and eventually went to their first World Series in team history. That year, James Shields cultivated his reputation as Big Game James. In 25.0 innings he put together a nice little run where he allowed an ERA of 2.88; plus, you know, that moniker rhymes, and people like that. Since 2008, Shields has thrown a whopping 20.1 postseason innings spread across four starts (roughly 5.0 IP/start), allowing 17 ER on 23 hits, with a K/UIBB ratio of 20/4 with 5 hit batsman. His career playoff ERA is 4.96, but if we throw out his 2008 run with the Rays, it’s a robust 7.52. Big Game, you say?

When you tune in to the ALCS later this week, you’ll be sure to hear the announcers bring up James’s nickname, but just because it’s in the public conscious does not make it true. It’s this type of groupthink that breeds so much of what is wrong during the baseball postseason though.

The other day I was at my parents house and overheard my dad talking to my little brother about how Clayton Kershaw isn’t a “playoff pitcher,” mostly because of his implosion during the 2013 postseason against the Cardinals. Strangely, later that night Clayton allowed eight runs to St. Louis, so I’m sure my dad felt validated.

I make a living dealing table games at the casino, and as an avid gambler I understand the laws of probability all too well. I make a lot of mention about how the small sample means nothing, and it plays out in baseball just the same. The postseason is not a special brand of baseball; it’s still baseball. Pitchers and hitters are the same players they are during the regular season, but since we’re dealing with such a finite amount of at bats, or innings pitched, each run generated or allowed gets heightened and sensationalized to the point where we think James Shields is better than he really is, or Clayton Kershaw is worse than he really is, and it’s how scrubs like David Freese and David Eckstein turn into heroes.

Over the small sample, anything is possible; over the large sample, players are who we thought they were.

The small sample is why teams like the Royals and Orioles can sweep the two-best teams in the American League, and it’s why, if the teams had played a 21-game series, for instance, there would be a lot less left to the imagination. The better team would win 11 times before the other (probably), and the better players would outshine the weaker ones (most likely).

James Shields is a nice pitcher, and Clayton Kershaw is excellent. When the narrative gets spewed your way, revert back to what you know, what has proven to be true. The playoffs are the most important games of the baseball season, and simultaneously the worst representation of what is and what isn’t.

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