Last October, Jeff Sullivan wrote about how the 2012 postseason was almost historically low-scoring, calling it “Where Offense Went to Die,” because Jeff Sullivan is wonderful and perceptive. He noted the following stats at the time:
Hitters had a combined .227 batting average, a combined .290 OBP, a combined .349 slugging percentage.
If the 2012 postseason were a player, it would have basically been Justin Smoak, who had a slash line roughly in that range. Smoak was nowhere near the World Series or the playoffs, of course, largely because his Seattle team was terrible, but also because Smoak was hitting like, well, that all year.
With either one or two games remaining in the 2013 postseason, not likely enough to significantly move the needle, we’ve seen 74 playoff games, exactly the same as last year. And where are we this time around? .229/.289/.355, also known as “being within the margin of error of being completely identical”. That’s in the Starlin Castro or Mike Moustakas range of hitters this year, and again, that’s pretty poor, especially when MLB as a whole hit .253/.318/.396 this season. If you liked last year’s lack of hitting, well, you’re seeing the sequel right now, and suddenly last year’s near-historic offensive outage looks like it might not be so historic after all.
Runs per game are up slightly, to 3.55 as compared to 3.33 last year, but that’s clearly still a marked drop from the 4.17 the sport averaged as a whole this year, especially so since the Red Sox and Cardinals were two of the three highest run-scoring teams in MLB. The Cardinals, as a team, are hitting .213/.281/.318, good for a .599 OPS that’s the worst of any team that saw time in October.
That postseason offense is lower than regular season is hardly a surprise, because the game is set up to play out in exactly that way. Thanks to regular days off, you never see fifth starters, and in the Division Series you can even get away without fourth starters if you like, so the quality of pitching is by definition better. For example, of the 10 postseason games the Dodgers played across two series, nine were started by Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, who all ranked among the top 17 in FIP. That left just one start for Ricky Nolasco and none for fill-ins like Edinson Volquez, Chris Capuano, and Stephen Fife, who might otherwise have been pitching. Obviously, you’ve also eliminated losing teams that couldn’t do better than to staff out their rotations with the Kevin Correias, Joe Blantons, and Dallas Keuchels of the world.
That goes for the bullpens as well, where the expanded format and lack of killer “20 games in 20 days” road trips allows managers to more heavily rely on their top arms. That’s how the top five relievers for St. Louis can all have appeared at least eight times in October, while Shelby Miller and Edward Mujica take up space.
Going deeper, it’s not just about who is available, but how the managers value these games. That is, every out in a postseason game is critical, and the managers will play the matchups to optimize — in their opinion, even if we often disagree — the percentages. In yet another game in an endless July or August stretch, you might see if the unproven starter or the last reliever can show you something by working out of a spot. In October, those chances are rarely given to lesser players, because managers will be sure to take advantage of that lefty-on-lefty matchup when they can. (I know, I know — unless you’re Mike Matheny with Randy Choate warmed to face David Ortiz.)
Those facts have been in play for years though, and apply to postseason play in general, not just 2013, though anecdotally it seems like it’s more extreme now. (Could you imagine a manager letting a starter go 10 innings, like Jack Morris is most famous for, today?) But the drop in postseason offense is the inevitable outgrowth of the trend in baseball as a whole, which has seen scoring drop as strikeout records fall every year and the average fastball velocity increases, hitting 92 mph for the first time this season.
As ESPN’s David Schoenfeld noted on Twitter, in the entirety of the 1980s, there were 27 postseason games where a team struck out 10 times or more. In the 2013 postseason alone, that’s happened 26 times, and while there’s obviously more playoff games now than there used to be, it’s still a shocking number. It’s long been a sabermetric tenet that strikeouts aren’t worse than any other out, but they do remove the possibility of an error or a poorly-struck ball landing in a lucky spot, and that’s what we’re seeing — lots and lots of balls not being put into play.
The American League teams in the playoffs so far have a 9.46 K/9, up from just 7.65 in the regular season, as more and more pitches come from rested, talented arms placed in better spots than would have been in the case during the season, and we’re on pace to shatter just about every postseason strikeout record.
It’s fair to note, of course, that 74 games isn’t the largest sample size in the world, and it was just two years ago that the 2011 postseason saw all sorts of run-scoring. What we’ve seen so far is not enough to define this environment as “the new normal,” and it might just be that the young St. Louis arms like Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez and friends are putting on a show that can’t be repeated. But as whiffs increase and runs drop over the longer samples of full-season play, it’s hard to write this off as a fluke.
What all this has served to do is to magnify every part of each game, because an umpire calling obstruction or a manager changing his lineup strategy or a rookie getting picked off first base matters a whole lot less in a 10-3 game than it does in a 2-1 game, and it makes every run we do see that much more vital. It’s both good and bad, really, because this has somehow been one of the most exciting and memorable World Series we’ve had in a while, but it’s difficult to say it’s been among the best. What we’ve had are a ton of strikeouts, nonstop flamethrowing from talented young pitchers, and a few oddball plays to spice it up. If you like that sort of thing, this is the series for you. If you prefer more than just the occasional longball or hitters who can actually make contact, well, at least it’s almost over.