The truth about playoff baseball

Even if you don’t enjoy baseball, you might enjoy this…

When I started this blog I promised I’d write about baseball once in a while and I have yet to do so. Let’s fix that oversight right now with a little something about October baseball.  

For six months and 162 games big league teams have been running a marathon; starting tonight, it’s a sprint.

Teams are no longer trying to win 95 games out of 162; teams have to win right now. At 8:08 Eastern Standard Time the Brewers and Nationals play the NL Wild Card Game and the loser goes home for the winter.

In a game where patience is a virtue, once they get to the postseason, teams can no longer afford to think long term.

Here’s how that changes things.

Managing

In pro sports star players have more power than most fans realize; if you think an NBA coach is telling LeBron James what to do, you haven’t spent a lot of time around NBA teams.

That being the case, one of the ways big league managers keep their jobs is to make sure their players are happy and one of the ways to keep players happy is to do everything possible to help those players reach their personal goals.

Every player pays lip service to winning and putting the team first, but there’s some bullshit mixed in with those statements. Players want to win, but they’re also trying to put up the individual numbers that will keep them employed.

Putting the team first is not a great strategy if you’re not on the team.

So during the regular season if a starting pitcher has a shot at a win his manager will bend over backwards to get him through five innings so that pitcher gets his W. Closers get paid for saves, so managers might be reluctant to use them in non-save situations.

It’s easy for people who don’t manage big league baseball teams to say a closer should be used in the seventh inning, but do that without the closer’s OK and the closer might call his agent and his agent might call the GM and the GM might call the manager.

Whether fans like it or not, in the real world big league managers have to consider the feelings of the players they manage.

Until they get to the postseason.

This time of year players are supposed to put personal goals aside and do whatever the team needs; in other words, actually do what they say they’ve been doing all year.

In the postseason managers might use different lineups, pull starters early, ask relievers for more pitches and innings and be more aggressive about pinch-running and pinch-hitting. 

And if a player doesn’t like the way he’s used in the playoffs, tough.

If a player complains about how he’s used in the postseason, word will get around baseball; when everything is on the line, you don’t want this guy in your clubhouse.

When a player with good numbers has a hard time finding a job and you’re trying to figure out why, that just might be part of the reason. Some teams will put up with a selfish player for the production he provides, other teams think it’s not worth it.

In the playoffs managers can — or at least should — forget a player’s personal goals and do whatever they think necessary to win that night’s game. And if any player has a problem with that, you probably don’t want him on your team.

The player had all season to put up his numbers, now it’s time to win.

Offense

If you’re a baseball fan you already know there’s been a renewed emphasis on walks and home runs. But one of the weaknesses of an offense based on walks and home runs is once you get to the playoffs, walks and home runs can be tough to come by.

The weaker teams have been eliminated and the weaker pitchers on the better teams might never appear in a game. So if a guy like Justin Verlander gets on a roll, you better figure out a different way to score runs.

When you see someone fail to get a bunt down or get thrown out attempting to steal in the postseason, ask yourself how often they used those tactics during the regular season. If you don’t work on those skills all summer long, they won’t be there in the playoffs.

Nevertheless, some team will panic and ask a guy with no history of bunting to get one down under pressure…and the results usually aren’t good.

Relievers

Teams don’t like to come right out and say this, but there just aren’t enough good relief pitchers to go around. If a team has three lights-out relievers in a seven-man bullpen that’s a lot.

During the regular season you can’t ask those three guys to pitch every inning of relief, so managers have to find situations where the other four relievers have a better chance of success – matchups with certain hitters – or have those guys throw when they can’t hurt the team.

Like games the team is already losing.  

But in the playoffs managers can rarely afford to give up on a game early, so they ask for more pitches and more innings from their better relievers. Managers can get away with that because the finish line is in sight.

But even though there aren’t many games left, it’s still possible to overuse a good reliever in the postseason.

One of the advantages elite relievers have is opposing hitters don’t get to see them all that often. Keep running the same reliever out there against the same lineup in a long playoff series and those relievers can lose that advantage.

If a top-of-the-line reliever gets whacked around, ask yourself how many appearances he’s made against the hitters doing the whacking.

Analytics

The numbers guys like large sample sizes, but in baseball – and especially the playoffs – a large sample size can lead you down the wrong path.

Remember, you don’t give a damn about what a guy has done over his career or the last 162 games or what he’s done against your team over the course of the season; you need to know what he’s doing right now and what he’s likely to do tonight.

And right now an All-Star could be slumping and a blue-collar player could be hot. And if that’s the case, work around the blue-collar player and pitch to the All-Star.

Because you’re in a sprint, not a marathon.