The More Things Change…

Posted on 16 October 2012 by Will Emerson

…the more they stay the same. The LCS match-ups are set. Yankees-Tigers, Cardinals-Giants. Ho-hum. Now, while these are not heated rivalries and these teams do not have a ton of recent playoff history against each other, well, they are not exactly new blood. Since 2004, the span of the past eight postseasons, these four teams have combined to make six World Series appearances and ten LCS appearances. In comparison, the four teams they just bounced from the playoffs, well, they have just one appearance in that time span. No, no, not each. Combined! There have been 16 World Series slots, if you would, from 2004- 2011 and this year’s four remaining teams have all been there once and accounted for 37.5% of those slots. This includes the past two World Champions, the Giants and Cardinals who are squaring off against each other for another National League Championship and a chance for another World Championship ring. After this season is done, heck even before it is done, from 2004-2012 these four teams will have been responsible for eight of the 18 World Series slots. That will be 44% of the slots for those not quick with the arithmetic. The real question here, is why these teams have been able to do this? Sure, everyone knows the Yankees open their checkbook and make things happen, and none of these teams are considered as small market as, say, Oakland, but as we’ve seen in the past, money does not always win championships. So what is it, exactly, that brings us the same teams time and again? Well, one thing I always tend to hear is that it is simply because these teams know how to win, especially when it counts. Or, sometimes, once we reach the postseason, it is playoff experience that can take over and is what gets these team past those teams with inexperience. But how much of a factor is that really?

The argument of experience in the playoffs, or simply in big games, will almost always win out over inexperience. Sounds reasonable and in life, that should certainly be the case. If two people are interviewing for the same job, all else being equal, the person with more experience, in theory, will win out. But how much of a factor does experience really play in baseball playoffs? Sure, as mentioned above, these four teams have been in the thick of the pursuit of a World Series Championship, but did the Yankees oust the Orioles because they have more experience, or rings? Is it because they know how to win in October? Well, I do not think you can completely dismiss that point altogether, but maybe there is a bit of an overemphasis on explaining it as easily as that.

Yes, the Yankees have more playoff experience of late, and well, over the history of baseball, than the Orioles. In fact the Yankees have more World Series rings since 2000, than the Orioles have playoff appearances in that time. But this is also kind of my point. Okay, okay, experience yes, got it. But isn’t the reason the Yankees, and the other three teams remaining, have more playoff experience is because they are consistently good enough to get to the post season and win. Isn’t it more that the Yankees are just a better team than the Orioles, regardless of experience? Did anything the Orioles did in their losses count as something that would not have happened if they had experience? They took the Yankees to five games in a best-of-five series and that was more than most people probably expected. Heck, the fact they almost won the division, or even made the playoffs was more than most people expected. As they approached Game 5 the common notion amongst baseball fans, and pundits alike, was that the Yankees would win because they were at home and their experience, and the Yankee aura (yuck), would take over and get them to the ALCS. Or could it be that, generally speaking, they are overall a better team than the Orioles? Now it was an admirable fight by the Os, but it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see that Sabathia versus Hammel is a match-up that favors the Yankees. So, what does postseason experience matter there?

I mean, it is not as if the rules change in the postseason, right? Games are still nine regular innings, are they not?  It is still three outs per half inning, correct? Three strikes and your out, even in the postseason, right? And most importantly the team that has more runs wins and the first team to three or four wins, depending on the series, moves on. Do you think Drew Storen would have not given up the winning run and blown his save opportunity in what ended up being the last inning of the Nationals’ season, had he had more playoff experience? Probably not. Anything to that effect is of course, pointing to mostly psychological factors. The experience is about handling the pressure of the big stage and not succumbing to said pressure or intimidating crowds. But even there, doing it once, twice, or even more times, may never get rid of the jitters a player feels going into or during a playoff game. And as far as the intimidating crowd noise? The Reds, Nats and Athletics all had game fives at home, so it’s not like they ventured into hostile territory or anything. You don’t need playoff experience to know you need to win at home. I guess, this could be the biggest argument for experience playing a large role in the playoffs, since the experienced teams were all ready to go and despite the hostile environment, managed to win big games. It is a decent argument, I will grant you, but I still feel like it may have just been a case of the better team actually winning.

Now as I say that, I am sure there are people saying, “well look at the records, how can you say the better teams won?” Well, that is a kind of flimsy argument. Despite the records, I believe the Tigers are better than the Athletics. In the National League, with the exception of the Cardinals, the teams were, I thought, pretty evenly matched. I do think the Reds are a better team than the Giants and the Nationals are a better team than the Cardinals. However, these could have been two remarkably different series’ had the Reds and Nats had their aces. The Reds lost Johnny Cueto after one batter and, I’m sure we’ve all heard about the Nats’ Steven Strasburg situation plenty at this point. So if they pitch, do their teams win? Well, you can’t say for sure, but that could have been a much bigger factor than experience, who’s to say?

So, does experience play a factor when it comes down to big games and big moments in the postseason? Of course it does, and I am not arguing that or dismissing experience altogether. All I am trying to get across is that it may not be quite as big of a factor as many would like to believe. The reason the teams with experience win, I believe, is because they are generally just better teams, which is why they keep making the playoffs in the first place and gaining said experience. Yeah, if Derek Jeter was released by the Yankees and lands on say, the Indians (an extreme example, I know, but bear with me here), you don’t think that would help them more in postseason play as far as the experience he brings? Sure it would, but matched up against a better team, with equal or less experience, I still say that better team will win out, 80-85% of the time. So let’s hold off on laying so much playoff credit on experience and taking away from the fact that for the most part, the better teams are winning. And as far as experience over inexperience, ask the back-to-back AL Champion Texas Rangers, who fell apart down the stretch and lost their one game playoff, how they feel about it.

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