What wasn’t surprising about Sunday’s game between the Dodgers and the Braves was that the Dodgers won. Not that the Braves are any sort of pushover, of course, but the Dodgers had to be considered the favorites. What was more surprising was the manner by which the Dodgers achieved their victory. Starter Hyun-Jin Ryu was removed after throwing just three innings, yielding a pair of two-run frames. But the Dodgers’ lineup chased opposing starter Julio Teheran before the end of the third, and it ultimately ended up a laugher. Not only did Teheran allow more than five runs for the first time all year; for the first time all year, he also lasted fewer than five innings.
Both Ryu and Teheran were making their first-ever starts in the playoffs, and each could’ve performed levels better. Ryu, at least, pitched in games of some import in Korea — Teheran hadn’t faced these stakes, and the TBS broadcast noted that he looked like he was pitching nervous. He was said to look timid and young, with the Dodgers taking considerable advantage. This is the time of year when authorities all over the place give a lot of importance to a player having played in the postseason in the past. It’s important, they say, for the player to have dealt with the intense, persistent pressure. I don’t think there’s any question that the playoffs have a bit of a different feel. At issue is whether that matters.
This post is going to deal only with starting pitchers, because they’re the players in which I’m most interested. And it’s funny what happens when you look at the other starters who have just recently made their playoff debuts. Danny Salazar started hot, but tailed off, and got removed after four. That was far from outstanding. But another guy who made his debut was Alex Cobb, who worked nearly seven scoreless innings. Gerrit Cole allowed just one run to the Cardinals. Mike Minor allowed just one run to the Dodgers. Sonny Gray straight-up blanked the Tigers, pitching right along with the significantly experienced Justin Verlander. Anecdotally, experience has hardly mattered lately. A.J. Burnett got whipped in his eighth playoff start. Lance Lynn got smoked in his 17th playoff appearance. Look at things this way, and there’s nothing, really, to be concluded.
But we can also do better than that. We can do much better than I’ve done, but here’s what I’ve done. Below, a table. Between 1970-2013, I identified 78 starting pitchers who made playoff starting debuts, and then got at least another four playoff starts. I looked at the first five, and grouped them. The table, then, has combined stats for first career playoff starts through fifth career playoff starts, by which point all the starters will have had four starts of playoff experience. What might we see in the numbers? If experience is important, we’d expect runs allowed to be highest in start number one.
Some things. First, there’s the matter of sample size. All the groups are around 500 innings, but it’d be better to have, I don’t know, 5,000 innings, because then the errors would be reduced and I’d be more comfortable using ERA and RA. It’s also beyond critical to acknowledge some selection biases here. To get playoff start number one, a pitcher might be more likely to have had a strong regular season. To get playoff start number five, that might be less important. Also, a pitcher is less likely to get additional playoff starts if his first one or two suck, so that’s another potential factor. This is far from representing infallible science.
But, I mean, the numbers speak for themselves. Earned run average goes up. Run average goes up. If this table says anything, it’s that experience is a negative. I don’t think that makes sense, either, but there’s no evidence here that experience is an important thing for a starting pitcher to have going into October. The absence of evidence isn’t proof of the opposite, but what it is is the absence of evidence. Our working hypothesis should probably be that baseball games are baseball games. If people want to advance the argument that having experience is critically important, then the burden of proof is on them. Beyond just the anecdotal, they need to demonstrate that players perform worse until they get their feet under them.
Why might experience not really matter? We could ask Jim Leyland:
“Everybody, whether you’ve played 100 years or you’re a rookie, there’s always a little anxiety when you get to postseason play. It’s like teams playing in the Super Bowl,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. “I don’t care how long they’ve played, there’s a difference. It’s good to be a little nervous, but it’s bad to be scared.”
That theory is that everyone’s a little nervous. Which, probably, yeah, that makes sense, and every postseason series and every postseason environment is different. For some other peripheral evidence, consider all the research that’s been put into clutch hitting and clutch performance. Clutch performance is, basically, elevated performance when the stakes are higher, and the stakes are always higher in the playoffs, so October is sort of a whole clutch month. People haven’t yet conclusively identified clutch ability, or un-clutch ability. Generally speaking, to play in the major leagues, you have to be able to handle pressure. In that way baseball is selective for guys who are able to maintain their focus. There’s reason to be a little nervous before a regular-season game in the middle of May. The playoffs aren’t that different — it’s all still baseball, and these players are terrific at that.
It’s funny — so far, Carlos Beltran has been maybe the best postseason performer ever. I know he’s a hitter, and not a pitcher, so he’s not directly applicable to this post, but what really got Beltran started was one postseason in which he slugged eight dingers with the Astros. He hit four in his first-ever playoff series. He hit four more in his second. Maybe the best postseason ever came in a player’s first-ever postseason. Anyway, we can wrap this up.
Overall, I don’t think there’s a reason to really care about amount of experience. It’s been looked at before, and I don’t recall seeing any proof that it makes a positive difference. Now, for me that’s a general rule of thumb, and general rules don’t apply, necessarily, to every single individual. Maybe Teheran really was rattled to some extent by the pressure, and I can’t prove that he wasn’t. But one shouldn’t have been worried about Teheran just on the basis of his being a young, inexperienced starter. More important than that is that Teheran was tremendous all regular season long. What he turned in on Sunday was a clunker, but clunkers happen. Just Saturday, one happened to David Price.
You can just think about this the next time someone makes a big deal out of postseason experience:
Experience is familiarity, and it tends to be helpful to be more familiar. That familiarity would’ve allowed Miguel Cabrera to anticipate media attention and a louder environment. It wasn’t going to help him hit Sonny Gray’s fastball. No one was going to hit that Sonny Gray fastball. All that Gray had to do was pitch, and he’s done that plenty.
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