Playoff Experience: A Factor that Isn’t

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.

Start# ERA RA IP
1 3.05 3.34 495.3
2 3.06 3.38 508.7
3 3.54 3.81 483.7
4 3.82 3.99 485
5 3.91 4.42 460.7

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:

GrayCabrera.gif.opt

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.



Print This Post



Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Brian McCann
Guest
Brian McCann
2 years 7 months ago

Experience or no, ACT LIKE YOU’VE BEEN THERE BEFORE

D
Guest
D
2 years 7 months ago

*yawn*

Retirenutting
Guest
2 years 7 months ago

And make those horrible, sophomoric Pirates fans stop chanting opposing pitchers’ names. It’s immature and annoying!

-signed

Best Fans In Baseball

Hurtlockertwo
Guest
Hurtlockertwo
2 years 7 months ago

Nothing is worse that Tomahawk chop in Atlanta.

TKDC
Guest
TKDC
2 years 7 months ago

I love the tomahawk chop. It obviously gets under the skin of other fans. That’s why the Dodgers fans were mocking it last night. Should the series return to Atlanta, perhaps the Braves fans will return the favor and mock Dodgers fans by brutally murdering one of them?

Ted's Head
Guest
Ted's Head
2 years 7 months ago

Anything that offends lockstep liberal lemmings cannot be the worst thing.

cktai
Guest
cktai
2 years 7 months ago
some.guy
Guest
some.guy
2 years 7 months ago

Could it be that the perceived importance of postseason experience is so strong that it pushes managers to start less talented pitchers?

Freddy Garcia
Guest
Freddy Garcia
2 years 7 months ago

Can you think of a real world example?? Seems far-fetched.

kevinthecomic
Guest
kevinthecomic
2 years 7 months ago

The Braves are starting Freddy Garcia in game 4 over Alex Wood.

kevinthecomic
Guest
kevinthecomic
2 years 7 months ago

Never mind. I just saw your name. Bwahahahahahaha.

Terrence Trent
Guest
2 years 7 months ago

Maybe it matters for some and not for others. Maybe after watching an inning or three some people are able to notice which pitchers are nervous and which are not. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Just as good of a theory as others.

D'Arby
Guest
D'Arby
2 years 7 months ago

Maybe not all of it, but maybe it accounts for some of it. Maybe you’re onto something.

Jason B
Guest
Jason B
2 years 7 months ago

Shedding a little disinfecting sunlight into a dark, musty corner of baseball lore. Well done, sir.

some.guy
Guest
some.guy
2 years 7 months ago

And to continue my crusade against the common definition of clutch, where talent level is increased due to pressure – I think it’s better defined as being able to prevent a reduction in one’s talent level due to pressure.

Or, ‘clutch players don’t wilt under pressure’ instead of ‘clutch players rise to the occasion’.

Ruki Motomiya
Guest
Ruki Motomiya
2 years 7 months ago

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and really wish I was smart enough to number-ize it. I think it has real potential: It’s not that they get /better/, it’s that they avoid getting /worse/.

Col Nathan Jessup (Ret), TBS Operations Director
Guest
Col Nathan Jessup (Ret), TBS Operations Director
2 years 7 months ago

Son, we live in a world that has 4 hour playoff baseball games, and that airtime has to be filled by men with narratives. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Jeff Sullivan? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Julio Teheran, and you curse the announcers who have to entertain America while he melts down. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That attributing Teheran’s poor performance to a lack of playoff experience, while almost certainly incorrect, probably prevented someone from switching the channel to a Duck Dynasty rerun. And Dick Stockton’s existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, at least keeps the money flowing. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want Dick Stockton on the air, you need Dick Stockton on the air. We use words like veteranosity, clutch, big game. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent mystifying something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who endlessly amuses himself with the sports programming that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a microphone, and a sport jacket stand in the studio next to Keith Olbermann. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

NS
Guest
NS
2 years 7 months ago

I enjoyed the hell out of this. Thanks.

jwise224
Guest
2 years 7 months ago

Please tell me this is teaser for the latest Dayn Perry series. This is Internet Street, afterall.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest
Well-Beered Englishman
2 years 7 months ago

Given Jeff Sullivan’s “Best of the Worst/Week in Worst” posts, I bet the man could fill airtime.

A Smart Ass
Guest
A Smart Ass
2 years 7 months ago

So you identified 78 pitchers who made 5 playoff starts, but those starts don’t necessarily have to have come in the same year.

So what you’re saying is that baseball players get worse as they age?

gump
Guest
gump
2 years 7 months ago

if they were the same year you could have said “so baseball players get worse the more innings they throw??”

but yeah this article should really have weighted the data by each pitcher’s career IP

Boston Phan
Guest
Boston Phan
2 years 7 months ago

Jeff, I love what you have brought to fangraphs this year. I have a quibble with your sample in this particular post, though. This sample must have really good pitchers in it to have those ERAs (though I suppose bad pitchers don’t usually get postseason starts). I think the fact that you are only looking at really good pitchers inhibits your ability to address the question of inexperience vs. experience.

Perhaps the sample should look at the performance of pitchers with similar xFIPs in the regular season and how the inexperienced ones performed in the postseason vs the experienced ones with the same xFIP. That way you could say “They performed the same during the regular season, but come the postseason, those making their playoff debuts performed more poorly” or vice versa, or no difference.

As a quick example, in this postseason alone starters making their first or second postseason start ever and with an xFIP<3.25 during the regular season had a weighted ave ERA of 1.46 in their postseason starts. This compares to starters making their third or more postseason start ever and with a regular season xFIP of 3.25 had a weighted average ERA of 8.77 this postseason vs experienced starters who had a weighted average ERA of 4.78 this postseason. Maybe the answer is that experienced starters have a lower variance of results? Nah, hard to conclude anything from this small a sample.

That Guy
Guest
That Guy
2 years 7 months ago

Or, even, open up the sample to include those that only made 1, 2, 3 , or 4 starts. I don’t imagine the table would shift in reverse, but at least you wouldn’t have to answer the question of only looking at pitchers who received a certain number of starts – obviously pitchers who make 5 post season starts are pretty good.

some.guy
Guest
some.guy
2 years 7 months ago

Also, re: Teheran, I’ll add my subjective opinion that when his command is shaky, it’s due to him rushing his delivery. It seems likely that could be enhanced by a postseason atmosphere. If I had the ability to GIF, maybe I could make this less subjective.

Ruki Motomiya
Guest
Ruki Motomiya
2 years 7 months ago

It seems like there does have to be a lot of selection bias. A guy making his 5th playoff start must, by definition, have been playing for at least 5 years (4 if, IDK, his first start came in the playoffs or something), not all of which had to come at the same time…we could be seeing older guys who suck getting playoff starts late in their career. For example, while not applying here due to him getting 5 when he was younger, half of Freddy Garcia’s postseason starts (When including this year) came 4+ years after his first one, two more coming at the end of his career. We’re almost assuredly seeing a decent number of older guys getting postseason games later in their career, when they are worse.

Personally, I think experience matters, it is just that announcers overblow it some (Likely due to their own selection bias: someone with postseason experience is likely someone they have seen and have seen do good), and that there are a lot of other factors. I think that what experience would most impact is consistancy: if they are getting rattled or whatnot, we’d probably see some wilder variation between starts (IE Teheran crapping the bed this game, then maybe throwing a good one next start, then throwing badly again later or something).

Roy Hibbert
Guest
Roy Hibbert
2 years 7 months ago

One thing i’ve always wondered is making free throws when the game is on the line. It certainly seems like ppl miss more often at the end of close games, but I haven’t seen any stats on it.

wpDiscuz