Does the Braves’ Stuff Work in the Playoffs?

“We know we’re going to strike out. That’s just a given with guys who have power. And we have a lot of guys who can hit the ball out of the park. And that kind of goes hand in hand. But you look at some of the studies — and our guys have looked at them — and there’s not a direct correlation with strikeouts and offense.”

— Atlanta general manager Frank Wren, interviewed by Jayson Stark on 2/18/13

This quote comes from Alex Remington’s piece on these very pages back in April. When the Braves finished constructing their roster — a roster similar to what we see now — there were questions as to whether the team would strike out too much to make a run at the postseason. Well, we’ve now reached the postseason, and the Braves are still here. And they’re still striking out too, averaging over 10 Ks a game so far. They also led the NL in home runs, an achievement they were expected to sniff given their lineup. This was kind of the plan from the beginning — strike out a fair amount, but counter that with a good deal of power.

This is in stark contrast to a team like the Astros, who struck out a lot — more than any team in the history of baseball, actually — but failed to provide offensive numbers in other categories. The Astros also netted 1.6 WAR from their ENTIRE pitching staff in 2013, so that didn’t help. But we’re not talking about the Astros, we’re talking about the Braves.

So, to recap, the Braves struck out a lot but made up for that by producing offensively in other ways, namely power. And now they’re in the playoffs. So far, they lost a game at home and won a game at home. In the game they lost, they struck out 15 times. Only 20 other teams have struck out 15 times or more in the playoffs. They lost that game 6 -1. In the next game, they only struck out six times, and won 4-3. We might be inclined to cut them a little slack for the first game, since they were facing the best pitcher in the league, but the question remains — can strikeout-prone teams succeed in the playoffs?

Going back to 1995, the start of the three-division era, there have been 156 teams that have made the playoffs in some capacity (the three-division era technically started in 1994, but there were no playoffs that year). When comparing K% to that of league average, the Braves aren’t the most strikeout-happy team to make the playoffs, but they are close.

Year Team K% lgK% DIFF Result
2010 Rays 20.60% 17.50% 3.10% Lost ALDS
2012 Athletics 22.40% 19.30% 3.10% Lost ALDS
2013 Braves 22.60% 19.90% 2.70% ??
2000 Cardinals 19.67% 17.10% 2.57% Lost NLCS
2008 Rays 19.40% 16.90% 2.50% Lost WS
2000 Athletics 18.02% 15.70% 2.32% Lost ALDS
2006 Tigers 18.30% 16.20% 2.10% Lost WS
2007 Indians 18.90% 16.80% 2.10% Lost ALCS
2009 Rockies 20.50% 18.40% 2.10% Lost NLDS
2002 Yankees 18.36% 16.30% 2.06% Lost ALDS
2012 Orioles 21.30% 19.30% 2.00% Lost ALDS

These are the top ten (top 11, including the Braves) high-strikeout teams that made the playoffs in the last 18 years. The results column might look a little lamentable when just looking at the final upshot, but we see that the teams in question had varying degrees of success. Two made it to the World Series, a few more advanced to the Championship Series. Six  teams were knocked out in the first round. Compare that to the top ten playoff teams with the lowest difference in strikeout rate compared to the league. Here, we see four World Series winners, as well as a loser, along with four teams that were bounced early.

Year Team K% lgK% DIFF Result
2002 Angels 12.72% 16.30% -3.58% Won WS
2011 Cardinals 15.70% 19.10% -3.40% Won WS
2011 Rangers 14.90% 18.00% -3.10% Lost WS
2013 Tigers 16.80% 19.80% -3.00% ??
2011 Phillies 16.30% 19.10% -2.80% Lost NLDS
1996 Indians 13.01% 15.70% -2.69% Lost ALDS
2007 Angels 14.20% 16.80% -2.60% Lost ALDS
2006 Cardinals 14.80% 17.40% -2.60% Won WS
2012 Giants 17.70% 20.20% -2.50% Won WS
2002 Cardinals 14.84% 17.30% -2.46% Lost NLCS
2006 Dodgers 15.00% 17.40% -2.40% Lost NLDS

Outs are a finite resource in baseball, and that’s magnified quite a bit during the playoffs. Whereas a high-strikeout team might be able to overcome over the course of a season, they may be more susceptible to chunks of strikeouts in the postseason, like the Braves were on Thursday. At this point, a slump can be defined over the course of ten at-bats. A team can always fall victim to things like BABIP and Raul Ibanez and Steve Bartman and home run rates over such a small sample, but they can do themselves in just as easily. Here’s the previous two charts again, with the addition of the teams’ OPS for their final series of the playoffs, as well as their regular season OPS.

Year Team K% lgK% DIFF Result OPS Season OPS DIFF
2010 Rays 20.60% 17.50% 3.10% Lost ALDS 0.625 0.736 0.111
2012 Athletics 22.40% 19.30% 3.10% Lost ALDS 0.553 0.714 0.161
2000 Cardinals 19.67% 17.10% 2.57% Lost NLCS 0.670 0.812 0.142
2008 Rays 19.40% 16.90% 2.50% Lost WS 0.576 0.762 0.186
2000 Athletics 18.02% 15.70% 2.32% Lost ALDS 0.695 0.817 0.122
2006 Tigers 18.30% 16.20% 2.10% Lost WS 0.581 0.777 0.196
2007 Indians 18.90% 16.80% 2.10% Lost ALCS 0.712 0.771 0.059
2009 Rockies 20.50% 18.40% 2.10% Lost NLDS 0.670 0.784 0.114
2002 Yankees 18.36% 16.30% 2.06% Lost ALDS 0.834 0.809 -0.025
2012 Orioles 21.30% 19.30% 2.00% Lost ALDS 0.498 0.728 0.230
AVG Diff 0.130

Year Team K% lgK% DIFF Result OPS Season OPS DIFF
2002 Angels 12.72% 16.30% -3.58% Won WS 0.835 0.773 -0.062
2011 Cardinals 15.70% 19.10% -3.40% Won WS 0.762 0.766 0.004
2011 Rangers 14.90% 18.00% -3.10% Lost WS 0.745 0.800 0.055
2011 Phillies 16.30% 19.10% -2.80% Lost NLDS 0.604 0.717 0.113
1996 Indians 13.01% 15.70% -2.69% Lost ALDS 0.694 0.844 0.150
2007 Angels 14.20% 16.80% -2.60% Lost ALDS 0.503 0.762 0.259
2006 Cardinals 14.80% 17.40% -2.60% Won WS 0.675 0.769 0.094
2012 Giants 17.70% 20.20% -2.50% Won WS 0.683 0.724 0.041
2002 Cardinals 14.84% 17.30% -2.46% Lost NLCS 0.730 0.763 0.033
2006 Dodgers 15.00% 17.40% -2.40% Lost NLDS 0.739 0.781 0.042
AVG Diff 0.073

It’s easy to expect a lower OPS in the playoffs. Teams are going against the very best starters, and opposing managers are more likely to bring in relievers earlier in the game. The competition is better than throughout the regular season. But the high K% teams looked quite a bit worse through the lens the compacted playoffs. A difference of .057 in OPS is the difference between the Red Sox and the Indians this year. It is also more than the difference between the 2013 Dodgers and the 2013 Mets. It’s not insignificant. It’s certainly not when a team only has five or seven games to achieve their goals.

This is not an iron-clad way to predict playoff performance, certainly. Nor is it a harbinger of doom for the Atlanta Braves. In fact, it only focuses on one third of what a team does. What the numbers do say is that a team with a strikeout rate a good deal higher than the league average has not recently won the World Series, and that some teams with a strikeout rate a good deal lower than the league average have won the World Series.

There’s also a whole load of other stuff in the middle, and none of this should be taken as conclusive. But if the Braves fall into their strikeout-happy ways like they did on Thursday, they could be in for an early exit.

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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

15 Responses to “Does the Braves’ Stuff Work in the Playoffs?”

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  1. gump says:

    you posted the high k playoff team chart twice…

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  2. nsacip says:

    The two highest strikeout players (BJ Upton and Dan Uggla) are no longer in the starting lineup. I believe without them, the Bravos are not an especially high strikeout team.

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  3. piratesbreak500 says:

    Quick question: Any way to take a look at the average difference in OPS for playoff teams? That’s give us a better context for the playoff percentage drop in OPS by high strikeout teams.

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  4. Looking at this article, it made me realize something odd: the dichotomy of this article looking at the offense of a playoff team and two major saber sites, BP and THT, doing studies long ago of what works in the playoffs for success and both concluded that offense did not matter in the playoffs.

    If offense does not matter, should we be bothering with an article like this? If Fangraphs does not concur with these two other studies, then perhaps the first order of matter is a study by your best analysts on what really matters for team success in the playoffs?

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    • Jason B says:

      “both concluded that offense did not matter in the playoffs”

      Was that in fact the conclusion, or are you conflating them to try and make a stronger point?

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      • Obsessivegiantscompulsive says:

        I do not know what conflating them means, unless you mean applying one study result to another to make a conclusion. Simply, no, that was the conclusion of two separate studies using different methodologies, but arriving to the same conclusion: offense does not matter in the playoffs in terms of success when defense, i.e. pitching and fielding does.

        BP wrote about it in their book, Baseball between the Numbers, chapter on why Billy Beanes “stuff” does not work in the playoffs, using regression technique and assigning different values to success in the playoffs. No offensive stat showed a statistical significance correlation to success in the playoffs, not even hitting home runs. Pitching and fielding stats did.

        THT did their study a few years back, do not remember the methodology exactly, but the conclusion was the same, offense during the season did not matter, high scoring or homer happy or low scoring. I can dig up the link if you are interested.

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    • Ty says:

      That’s interesting. I would assume due to the fact that mainly the best starters start in the playoffs, and pitchers have a greater influence on the game than hitters (for better or for worse). I don’t know if it is out there, but I would like to see a number for the influence that pitchers have compared to hitters, and fielding, when it comes to winning games. I know they have it for basketball (Basketball on Paper, if you are interested in knowing).

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      • That would be interesting, thanks.

        I think it has to do with the fact that there are pitchers who can control the game, as evidenced by quality starts (and I prefer using Shandlers Pure Quality Starts methodology, which uses saber metrics to determine a QS.). When in the playoffs, you got the poor quality pitchers taken out of the rotation leaving the better pitchers. The teams with depth in their rotation to deliver more QS during the playoffs give their team a better chance of winning it all.

        In a short series, if you got a team which gets 60% QS against a team with only 40%, which is good but not great, that gives the first team an extra win almost 80% of the time, which is crucial in a five game series. It is not absolute, but it does give the first team a big advantage over the other team. It gives a team 1-2 extra wins in seven game series too, around same percentage, I think.

        I had researched the last 4-5 playoffs using PQS, and found that when a QS is thrown, and the other do not have one, that QS team won 75-80% of the time.

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  5. Ruki Motomiya says:

    I think it is a matter of inconsistancy.

    Over the course of a season, for example, using the Jered Weaver vs. Matt Cain article they had a while ago, it is very possible the pitcher who pitches a shutout and then a 6 run stinker is better than someone who does 3 and 3, because it is harder to keep up a pace to beat it over the season.

    But in the playoffs, you only get a few games, so an inconsistant player is worse: all it takes is one or two 6-run stinkers and you’re boned, while the 3-and-3 guy gives you a chance every game for SSS.

    Something similiar might apply here: Over the course of a season, the timing of the high K games and such all evens out, especially due to all the other competitors. But in the playoffs, one guy striking out 3 times in a game could really kill ya that game, and while it doesn’t matter as much over 162…it matters a lot over 5 or 7.

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  6. D says:

    The Ks are one thing, but playing with only 2 OFs I think is a bigger deal.
    Also, a manager that believes that “no sample size is too small” is a tough obstacle too.

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  7. Snowman says:

    Doesn’t using only the teams’ final playoff series (6 wins to 4 losses) skew the numbers? It’s probably not a huge leap to assume that a team that lost a series, more often than not, will have a lower OPS than a team that won a series. Add the other 11 playoff series’ played by those 10 teams in those seasons, and you not only get a larger sample size, you probably get a more true picture due to that skewing.

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  8. rusty says:

    Why did you choose to use DIFF instead of something like K%- (which would scale with league average as 100)? I’m not trying to discredit the findings or anything, but league K% in the first two charts varies from 15.7% to 19.9%, so using an adjusted number rather than a raw difference would change the ordering of the chart and may affect which teams make the top 10 as well.

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  9. rusty says:

    Another thought I’d like to raise is that when we consider outcomes in terms of how far a team makes it in the playoffs, it would be helpful to have a baseline comparison: in an eight-team playoff, each year four teams lose in the DS, two lost in the CS, and the WS has one winner and one loser (obvious, I know).

    So in regard to the first two charts, a sample of ten randomly-selected playoff teams would have outcomes in the neighborhood of 5/2.5/1.3/1.3. The distribution we actually see in the first chart is 6/2/2/0, while the second is 4/1/1/4. The latter certainly looks to me like a meaningful effect (and so it may be worth identifying a larger sample of teams to check), but the former seems like it’s basically two series outcomes away from matching the baseline.

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  10. Requiem says:

    Why is no one bringing up the fact that those teams winning their last series are going to likely have a better offense in general than those that lose their last series?

    I’d like to see what the numbers are top 10 for the past LOSERS with the best K% ratio.

    I don’t know if it’ll change the results much, but the argument right now doesn’t hold enough water with the issue of winning teams skewing the results.

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