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Missing: Offense, Last Seen In September

In the ninth inning Tuesday night, Eduardo Nunez of all people put together a good at-bat and took Justin Verlander deep over the left-field fence. What the home run meant was that the Yankees had narrowed the deficit from 2-0 to 2-1. What the home run also meant was that a Tigers starting pitcher allowed a run in the ALCS. It was the first run charged to a Tigers starter in the series, and Tuesday night was Game 3. And for funsies, in the last game of the ALDS, the Tigers’ starter threw a shutout.

This is the big story at the moment. That the Tigers are running out some amazing pitching, or, because of the media being the media, that the Yankees are running out some ice-cold hitters. Those are different ways of saying the same thing, and in fairness, we have to assume that it’s both. The Tigers’ pitchers have been good, and the Yankees’ hitters have been bad, and that’s weird because this regular season the Yankees had the best team offense in baseball. They’re not scoring, but they ought to be scoring, and now they have to win four games in a row if they want to avoid elimination.

Funny thing, though. So far in the ALCS, Tigers pitchers have combined for an outstanding 1.50 ERA. That’s the sort of ERA that can easily explain a 3-0 series lead. But Yankees pitchers have combined for an excellent 3.10 ERA themselves, and that’s not a team you’d expect to be losing, and losing badly. It’s true that the Yankees haven’t really been able to hit very well since the start of the playoffs. It’s also true that offense in general has been way way down.

As I write this, in Game 3 of the NLCS, the Giants and Cardinals have so far combined for one run in nearly three full innings. For all I know that game could turn into a barnburner, retroactively ruining its use as an example, but for now, hey look, those guys aren’t scoring either. People aren’t scoring. Coming into today, there had been 27 playoff games, and 191 total runs scored. That’s an average of 7.1 runs per game. During the regular season, there was an average of 8.6 runs per game. In the September/October portion of the regular season, there was an average of 8.5 runs per game.

Before today, we’d seen nearly 500 playoff innings pitched, and the combined overall ERA was 3.05. Obviously, the 2012 playoffs aren’t over yet, barring some unforeseen utter catastrophe, but I was curious where that league playoff ERA would rank in recent baseball history, so I called upon the Dark Overlord. There’s nowhere really convenient to look up these numbers, but David Appelman got back to me within minutes, providing ERA and FIP data stretching all the way back to 1884. Here is a graph.

It’s tricky because there’s so much bouncing around, and we’re going so far back. But so far in 2012, the league has combined for a 3.05 playoff ERA and a 3.49 playoff FIP. That would be the lowest league playoff ERA since 1990’s 2.84. It would also be the lowest league playoff FIP since 1990’s 3.41. On overall average, the ERA has been about 92 percent of the FIP. Over the last 30 years, the ERA has been about 94 percent of the FIP. The playoff FIP, for those of you who are curious, uses the regular-season constant.

Interestingly, in 2001, the overall playoff ERA was 3.11 — awful close to this year’s 3.05. But remember that the 2001 playoffs were delayed by about a week due to 9/11, pushing the games into colder, more pitcher-friendly weather. That year’s World Series wrapped up on November 4. That was an unusual year, for so many reasons.

Still going. This October, before today, there had been nearly 2,100 postseason plate appearances. Over all of those plate appearances, teams combined to bat .227/.291/.349, with a .274 BABIP. That is very poor! As a comparison, in 2012 Jose Molina collected 274 plate appearances, and he batted .223/.286/.355, with a .262 BABIP. As a whole, playoff teams have batted like teams full of clones of Jose Molina. Or you could say that, as a whole, playoff teams have pitched like they’ve all been pitching to Jose Molina as a catcher. Any reference to Jose Molina has to call some attention to his pitch-framing technique.

You always expect that offense will be down some in the playoffs from the regular season, because the teams with the worst pitching staffs usually don’t make it, and the worst pitchers on the good teams usually don’t throw many innings. But then, playoff teams also tend to have above-average offenses, canceling some of that out. Weather is another factor that comes into play, since playoff games usually aren’t played in warm and sunny conditions. Come playoff time, Texas ain’t Texas, and Detroit has an attitude.

Where we stand now, playoff offense is way down. You can try to explain it by pointing to some of the excellent pitchers, but then, there are always the Yankees, who suddenly can’t hit after having hit better than any other team. Anecdotally, it seems like the conditions have been exceptionally run-suppressing, with cold weather and falling water like we saw in Detroit Tuesday night. That’s something that would have to be more thoroughly studied. Ultimately, we won’t know how things shake out until things have shaken out and the World Series is finished. Only then will we be able to say whether this was the lowest-offense postseason in a couple decades. But for the time being, we’re well on our way.