Heartbreak by the numbers

Back when I followed baseball closely, I sometimes heard hardcore fans say that the playoffs will expose a team’s weakness. I never really believed this, though. The playoffs provide too few games to guarantee a full, searching probe of a baseball team.

The limits of the playoffs as arbiter of pure baseball quality seem even clearer in these days of “wild card” teams. Except in cases of an exceptional injury plague, wild card teams must have weaknesses; otherwise they would make the playoffs as division winners. Yet, often we see wild card teams make long, successful playoff runs.

In my view, a team might lose in the playoffs because of a weakness. But it might lose because a strength didn’t manifest itself during the course of, say, five games. Or it might lose because an opponent plays great, or due to bad luck.

The Washington Nationals had the best record in baseball this year. Yet, they lost their first (and only) playoff series in heartbreaking fashion to St. Louis, a wild card team. Although the Cardinals outplayed them over the course of the five games, the Nationals were up 6-0 in the fifth and decisive game, and led 7-5 as that game entered the ninth inning. But the Cards scored four runs in the ninth to eliminate the Nats.

In my view, the Nationals lost their Series with the Cardinals due in part to a relative weakness – insufficient selectivity in the pitches they swung at. Before the Series began, I looked at the numbers and found that the Nats drew slightly fewer than the National League average of walks, and 54 fewer walks than the Cards. This was consistent with my impression that Washington batters are extremely aggressive, sometimes overly so, at the plate.

This tendency held true during the playoffs. Each team in this round played five games. In these games, the Nats drew fewer than the average number of walks, and 15 fewer walks than the Cards.

Watching the games, it seemed to me that Jayson Werth was the only National who consistently worked the count. The rest of the hitters often appeared to jump on almost any plausible looking pitch, whether it was in the strike zone or not. And Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, and Michael Morse seemed often to get themselves out by swinging at almost anything. (During the regular season, Morse rarely walked; Espinosa was light on walks; Harper was ok in this department, but maybe too jacked up at playoff time to be as selective as he had been when less was at stake).

Washington’s playoff run production reflected this weakness. In five games, the Nats scored only 16 runs. And they scored six of them in the first three innings of the final game, when Cardinal starter Adam Wainwright lacked the command to throw the kind of pitches the Nats unwisely chased throughout the Series.

The Cardinals approach at the plate couldn’t have differed more. They forced Nationals pitchers to throw strikes. This was particularly evident in the closing innings of the decisive game, especially the ninth. Unlike in Games 3 and 4, I wasn’t at the ballpark for Game 5, and so could see from pitch track which pitches were in the strike zone and which ones weren’t. The Cardinal batters laid off of the not-that-good-to-hit pitches the Nationals were getting themselves out on. That’s how two batters reached base on walks in the ninth, after being behind in the count. That’s how the batters who drove them (or their pinch runner) in forced Washington pitchers to serve up the over-the-plate pitches they hit.

Nats pitchers gave up 38 runs in five games and they walked 28 Cardinals, an unconscionable number. If I had looked more closely at the pitching statistics prior to the Series, I would have noticed that Nats pitchers walked hitters at just about the NL average, and that St. Louis pitchers walked 61 fewer hitters than their Washington counterparts.

This might have suggested to me that Cardinal pitchers have the control necessary to exploit the Nats’ tendency to swing at close pitches that aren’t strikes, and that Nats pitchers may lack the exceptional control necessary to avoid walking extremely selective batters. In any event, that’s how it looked once they started playing ball.

But one shouldn’t overstate the degree to which the base on balls numbers foreshadowed the outcome of this Series. For one thing, the Nats biggest culprit in the walks department was Gio Gonzalez who, remarkably, walked 11 batters in only 10 innings. Yet during the regular season, Gonzalez issued 76 walks in 199 innings – somewhat worse than you like to see from a top pitcher, but nothing that would presage his playoff performance.

We should also keep in mind that a review of the Cardinals’ regular season statistics reveals areas of relative weakness. Their pitchers allowed a .255 batting average to opposing hitters, exactly the league average, and their relievers had more blown saves than average.

The Cardinals’ next opponent, the San Francisco Giants, is better in these departments, especially blown saves. So were the Nats. Maybe one or both of these areas of relative Cardinal weakness will be evident and partially determinative in the NL Championship Series; maybe not.

As former pitcher Joaquin Andujar once said: “There is one word that says it all, and that one word is, ‘You never know.’”

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