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Sports Authority

McCullough: Randomness reigns in playoffs

| Thursday, October 2, 2014

Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane once exasperatedly declared his strategies don’t work in the playoffs.

Since 1998, when Beane became GM of the A’s, the A’s have made the playoffs eight times. After Tuesday’s loss to the Royals, the A’s have made it out of the first round of the playoffs just once, despite the fact that those eight ball clubs averaged more than 95 wins, which is hardly the mark of a team does not deserve to be in the playoffs. The A’s have lost in the AL Divisional Series six times over the past 15 years; in each series, they lost two games to three.

There has been much speculation on why the A’s have not experienced much postseason success with teams that were considered superb by nearly any metric. While falling to the Tigers in the ALDS in both 2012 and 2013, many people speculated that it was a result of their lack of elite pitching, as the Tigers had the best starting pitching in baseball over those two seasons with the best marks in ballpark- and league-adjusted ERA, fielding independent pitching and strikeouts through nine innings from 2012 to 2013.  The A’s have been regarded to be one of the deepest teams in baseball, but in those two seasons, the Tigers had two aces, while the A’s had none.

In July, the A’s responded to the accusations of lack of elite pitching by trading one of the best prospects in baseball, Addison Russell, for a very good starter, Jeff Samardzija. Later that month, the A’s traded outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox for one of the best pitchers in baseball, Jon Lester, who was set to become a free agent at the conclusion of the season. With the emergence of second-year starter Sonny Gray, the A’s now had one of the best starting rotations in baseball. The A’s eventually faltered down the stretch with 22-33 record in August and September yet still finished with 88 wins.

Many baseball pundits claimed that the A’s would not have success in the playoffs because of their late season struggles. At the heart of the A’s collapse was Brandon Moss, who had 23 home runs from the beginning of the season to July 24. According to his weighted runs above average, adjusted for ballparks and league, Moss created 46 percent more runs than the league average. Over those 392 plate appearances, Moss was having an excellent season. In fact, through the first half of the season, Moss provided the 16th most value of any batter in baseball. However, from July 25 to the end of the season, Moss only hit two homers and was 32 percent below league average in terms of runs added as a batter. At the end of the season, the A’s still finished with the best run differential of any team in baseball, which is more reflective on the quality of a team than wins and losses. When the A’s played the Royals on Tuesday in the Wild Card game, Moss, who had hit two home runs in his final 188 plate appearances of the season, hit two home runs in the eventual defeat.

The A’s over the past 15 seasons and Moss this season epitomize the randomness of baseball’s postseason. The length of a baseball’s postseason is the smallest percentage of games compared to the regular season in any of the four biggest professional sports leagues in the United States. The playoffs have consisted of four teams from each league since the 1995 playoffs (excluding the new wild card format). Since 2005, only four teams that have finished with the best regular-season record have managed to win the World Series — the 1998 and 2009 Yankees, as well as the 2007 and 2013 Red Sox. It’s not just exclusive to the team with the best record. In fact, if we look at World Series champions over the past 19 years, the only other teams to win it with 95 or more wins are the 2005 White Sox, 2004 Red Sox, 2002 Angels and 1999 Yankees. In the past 19 seasons, there have been 75 teams with at least 95 wins, and all but one made the playoffs while there were 152 playoff berths. Eight of the 19 (42.1 percent) World Series champions with the current divisional format had at least 95 wins, while teams with 95 wins accounted for 74 of the 152 (48.2 percent) playoff teams. Although the sample size is too small to draw any significant conclusions, it is surprising, as teams with at least 95 wins over the course of an 162 games would be of a higher caliber than those with fewer wins.

It would not be unreasonable to suspect that it’s not simply that Billy Beane’s strategies don’t work in the playoffs, but that the World Series Champion is determined by chance once the postseason starts. That, in turn, begs the question, who will win the lottery this year?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.


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