The MLB Postseason: throw out the numbers

Learn what you can from the past, then focus on the present…

A while back I was switching channels to keep up with what was happening in all the MLB playoff games and heard an announcer say he loved the postseason because you could throw out all the numbers.

I didn’t stick around long enough to find out for sure, but it sounded like Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Kaat and if it turns out he’s dead, he’s still dispensing excellent advice from beyond the grave. But let’s forget what Spirit of Playoffs Past said it and concentrate on what it means.

Start with spray charts.

If you’ve been watching televised baseball games this season you’ve been seeing spray charts like the one above.

I pulled this one off the internet at random and if I interpreted the label correctly this is what St. Louis Cardinal Matt Carpenter did in 2018 when he put a ball in play that traveled less than 200 feet. (For our purposes let’s assume that’s exactly what it is because even if it isn’t we can still use it to learn something.)

If you were positioning infielders and strictly followed this chart, you’d probably want to put a bunch of defenders on the right side of the infield every time Carpenter came to the plate.

Or would you?

In 2018 Carpenter had 564 at bats so you’re looking at a spray chart based on a large sample size; given 564 chances, this is what Carpenter did. But that doesn’t mean the chances of Carpenter hitting the ball to the right side are 75 percent each and every time he steps to the plate.

What Carpenter did over 564 chances is just a starting point; what you need to focus on is what Carpenter might do with just four chances against the pitchers he’ll see that night.

Say the starting pitcher works in the low 90s, Carpenter then faces a soft-tossing lefty and then a backend of the bullpen guy who can hit 100 mph on the radar gun. Does Carpenter pull grounders to the right side 75 percent of the time no matter what type of pitcher he faces?

Maybe that 100-mph guy will get the left-handed Carpenter to hit a grounder to third base a whole lot more than eight percent of the time and if that’s the case you don’t want everybody standing over on the right side of the infield when your Nuke LaLoosh is on the mound.

Throw out the overall numbers and go with what’s happening right now.

Overall average versus right now

Here’s what the eight Cardinal position players that started Game 2 of the NLCS did during the regular season:

1.       Fowler .238

2.      Wong .285

3.      Goldschmidt .260

4.       Ozuna .241

5.      Molina .270

6.      Carpenter .226

7.      Edman .304

8.     DeJong .233                                                    

Now here’s what those same guys are currently hitting in the playoffs:

1.       Fowler .069

2.      Wong .192

3.      Goldschmidt .345

4.      Ozuna .310

5.      Molina .115

6.      Carpenter .091

7.      Edman .240

8.     DeJong .208

If you’re a pitcher about to face the Cardinals you don’t care all that much about what guys hit during the regular season; throw those numbers out because what really matters is how they’re hitting right now. 

And how the Cardinals are hitting right now changes the way you work through their lineup. 

How about the pitcher?

The Nationals Anibal Sanchez started Friday night’s game against the Cardinals. During 2019 Sanchez threw his splitter 4.5 percent of the time so if you were facing Anibal you might not worry about a pitch he’ll only throw four times a game.

But Friday night Sanchez threw the splitter 24 times in 103 pitches.  

During 2019 Sanchez threw his sinker 9.6 percent of the time; Friday night he threw it about 20 percent of the time.

The Cardinals didn’t see a changeup – a pitch Sanchez relied on 23.5 percent of the time during the season – until the fourth inning and Sanchez wound up throwing just seven of them; about six percent of the time.

Smart pitchers do not use the same game plan every time out and if they see a team is struggling with a certain pitch might throw it more often and minimize a pitch the other team is hitting well.

The Cardinals couldn’t afford to ignore the splitter because Sanchez didn’t throw it much over the course of the regular season. Throw out the overall numbers – which only tell you what happened in the past – and deal with what’s happening in the present.

Don’t forget the mental stuff

Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals scuffled during 2019 and only played in 52 regular season games, but has been in the postseason five times.

Players who have never experienced the postseason atmosphere are sometimes overwhelmed; way more media, way more ticket requests from second cousins they haven’t seen since third grade, way more distractions in general.

It’s also way different to play in front of 18,000 fans in July than playing in front of 54,000 fans going batshit in October.

After Zimmerman hit a three-run home run against the Dodgers, TBS announcer Jeff Francoeur talked about why a manager might want to stick with a veteran, even if his regular season numbers don’t look all that hot.

A kid with better numbers might be hyperventilating in the postseason and have less chance of coming through under pressure than a been-there-done-that guy who’s calmer and likely to take a better at bat.

So the Undead Jim Kaat is right; the overall numbers are a starting point, but go ahead and throw those out.

What’s really important is what’s happening right now.