Tigers, Yankees, and Playoff Theories Confirmed and Contradicted

Recently, in the American League Championship Series, the Detroit Tigers played against the New York Yankees. The Tigers played the Yankees four times, and now, the Tigers will play the Yankees no more times, having achieved the necessary four conquests. The Tigers now are just four more victories away from winning everything and nothing, while the Yankees are faced with a bleak winter existence of being privileged millionaires. These are important times in sports.

Prior to the beginning of the ALCS, many people examined the matchup between the Tigers and the Yankees and attempted to identify potential keys that might lead one team to triumph. Given that this was a playoff series, many of those keys were unoriginal, having been applied to other playoff series before. People have ideas about the playoffs, see, ideas that the playoffs are meaningfully different from the regular season. Over the course of this series, some of those ideas were validated, and some of those ideas were contradicted. Let us take this opportunity to review, thoroughly yet incompletely.

Idea: it is critical for a team to have postseason experience.

Confirmed by: Tigers

The Tigers are no strangers to the postseason, now. Their berth in 2006 was their first since 1987, but in 2006 they advanced to the World Series, and in 2011, they advanced to the ALCS. During a mid-game interview on Thursday, Justin Verlander was asked about the difference between himself now and himself in 2006, and he pointed to the value of his playoff experience. He was also asked about Delmon Young‘s offensive emergence, and he pointed to the value of his playoff experience. Verlander went with far more interesting words, but the same general idea. From their experiences in the past, the Tigers learned, and improved.

Contradicted by: Yankees

You know who’s pretty much always in the playoffs? The Yankees. You know who was really terrible for four games in the ALCS? The Yankees. That’s not entirely fair — certain Yankees were okay — but many individual Yankees were bad, and their best hitter in the series was a guy who hadn’t been in the playoffs since 2001. Many of these Yankees had prior postseason experience. Fun lot of good it did them. Had Oakland or Baltimore gone out like the Yankees just did, people surely would have identified their inexperience as a cause. Whatever good experience did the Yankees, it didn’t seem to make much of any positive difference.

Idea: there’s nothing like having a proven shutdown ace in the playoffs.

Confirmed by: Tigers

Justin Verlander is probably the best starting pitcher in the world, and it’s possible he’s not even approaching the limits of that of which he’s capable, since he often seems to get removed before he’s actually tiring. In this series, Verlander started one game, and he carried a shutout into the top of the ninth against what had been baseball’s best team offense for six months. The idea in the playoffs is that an ace is as good as a guaranteed victory. Verlander basically guaranteed the Tigers victory.

Contradicted by: Yankees

Justin Verlander has been better than CC Sabathia, but he hasn’t been way better than CC Sabathia, and Sabathia is considered one of the other best starting pitchers in the world. He’s got all those acey qualities, to go with an acey personality and an acey contract. In Thursday’s must-win Game 4, Sabathia got his ass kicked, and admitted later that he was terrible. In the ALCS, having a proven ace didn’t do the Yankees any good. It actually did the opposite of that.

Idea: come playoff time, there’s a big advantage playing at home.

Confirmed by: Tigers

The Yankees were the higher seed, having finished with the best record in the AL, but the Yankees played two home games and the Tigers played two home games. The Tigers won both the games in Detroit, by a combined 10-2 score. At no point in those games did the Yankees have a lead, and though they weren’t trailing in Game 3 until the fourth, to that point their offense had managed just one weak groundball single. The Tigers played at home as if they were comfortable, loose, and energized by the partisan audience.

Contradicted by: Yankees

The Yankees played Game 1 at home and lost. Then the Yankees played Game 2 at home and lost. During the regular season, the Yankees finished with the best home record in baseball, and the Tigers were below .500 on the road. But the Tigers won by two and then they won by three, with the Yankees having scored in just one of 21 innings of play. You’d think the Yankees might’ve gotten a boost from the crowd coming alive in the bottom of the ninth in Game 1. After the Yankees staged an unbelievable comeback, the Yankees lost.

Idea: in October it’s absolutely vital to have a shutdown closer.

Not contradicted by: Yankees

The Yankees have a very good closer in Rafael Soriano, who became the closer shortly after Mariano Rivera‘s season-ending injury. In this series, he threw one shutout inning. It was not a save opportunity, and indeed, the Yankees didn’t have a single save opportunity in four games. So then.

Contradicted by: Tigers

Everybody knew coming in that Jose Valverde was shaky. I will now list off the Tigers pitchers’ ERAs from the ALCS, unattributed.

  • 0.00
  • 0.00
  • 0.00
  • 0.00
  • 0.00
  • 0.00
  • 1.08
  • 1.59
  • 54.00

Identify the ERA posted by the Tigers’ closer!

In four games, the Yankees scored a total of six runs. Jose Valverde allowed four of them in one half-inning and he watched Phil Coke take his job in the following two games. The Tigers’ biggest weakness was their closer, and it didn’t stop them from pulling off an unlikely series sweep.

Idea: you just have to have momentum to carry you all the way through.

Confirmed by: Tigers

The Tigers made it to the ALCS having survived an elimination game in the ALDS against the A’s. To win a Game 5 in a best-of-five series supposedly provides a hell of a lift, and one could argue the Tigers marched forward with unbreakable confidence. And of course, that ALDS followed a final stretch of the regular season in which the Tigers caught fire and leaped past the White Sox. If there’s a team that has momentum, it’s the Tigers, and now they’re in the championship.

Contradicted by: Yankees

The Yankees made it to the ALCS having survived an elimination game in the ALDS against the Orioles. Whatever good ALDS momentum did the Tigers, it did no such good for the Yankees, who looked flat the whole time. And remember that the Tigers had a day off in between playoff series, while the Yankees finished one round on Friday and began the next round on Saturday. It might be hard to sustain momentum through an off day, and the Yankees didn’t have to do that. And yet.

Conclusion: nothing

In some ways, the playoffs are meaningfully different from the regular season. One way in which they are not meaningfully different is that you can’t predict much about a four-to-seven-game stretch, and you can’t learn much from a four-to-seven-game stretch. The most important key come playoff time is that it’s critical to have good players instead of worse players, and even that doesn’t guarantee success, on account of the mathematics and the probabilities and the sample sizes and everything. You’d think we all would’ve moved past popular playoff theories by now, every last one of us. But where many of those theories end up being contradicted, many of them simultaneously end up being validated, meaning we’re left having gained or lost nothing. A theory doesn’t need to always be right to be repeated. It just needs to not always be wrong.

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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.

33 Responses to “Tigers, Yankees, and Playoff Theories Confirmed and Contradicted”

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  1. colin says:

    We need an article about the crazy parallels from 2006.

    Tigers beat the Yankees in the ALDS and then the A’s in a sweep in the ALCS to face the Cardinals in the WS.

    This year the Tigers beat the A’s in the ALDS then swept the Yankees in the ALCS and now look likely to play the Cardinals in the WS.

    Now I understand this is most likely a Buster Olney article but come on, coincidences are fun!

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  2. Jeff says:

    Oh, how we need this sent to every sports-talk radio & TV host in the country….though as a Yankee hater, I do hope a small-sample-size set of failures leads them away from a “home run” oriented offense. It really amazes me that so many people who do sports for a living think that the problem is that the Yankees have too many home run hitters.

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    • Baltar says:

      Oh, if only sending that to sports media would help! It won’t change a single mind, however, since each will find cherry-picked examples to “prove” their theory.
      Of all the playoff cliches, the only one that seems to be true is that a team’s top of the line starters become much more important in the playoffs compared to their bottom starters. That one is almost a tautology.

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    • Barkey Walker says:

      If you took things like this away from sports talk radio, what would they fill the time with? Seriously, a saber guy would make a terrible talk radio host.

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  3. RMD says:

    I tend to believe that negative momentum exists in baseball. I think it’s because it’s the only sport where the defense has the ball. A team down on it’s luck will be overly anxious to a point where everything is self defeating.

    Is it coincidental that The Rangers lost the game after their heartbreaking game 6? Ditto ’03 Cubs, ’86 Red Sox, ’04 Yankees, ’85 Cards, ’91 Braves, ’02 Giants, even the ’12 Rangers. All those teams lost in winner take all games.

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    • cass says:

      Tell that to the 2012 Cardinals. They lost Game 4 of the NLDS on a walk-off home run… only to win Game 5.

      You can cherry pick a handfull of postseason series to match any outcome or theory.

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      • TKDC says:

        Or the 1999 Atlanta Braves that lost game 5 on a walk-off grand slam single in 15 innings and then won game 6 (in a tight, 11 inning game, that included the Mets going ahead in the 8th and 10th inning only to have the Braves match) and the NLCS.

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      • Paul Thomas says:

        Actual evidence always being better than speculation, I looked at BB-Ref.

        Teams which force a deciding game of a playoff series are 44-40 all time, so essentially a coin toss. However, there was a period of time between about 1980 and 2003 where teams forcing a deciding game hardly ever lost, so for people of roughly the “Fangraphs generation,” the misconception is understandable (though, I think, a pure coincidence).

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  4. cwendt says:

    Don’t forget: Defense wins championships! Contradicted by: Tigers.

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  5. MikeS says:

    “The playoffs are a small sample size and although the better team wins a little more often, anything can happen.”

    Confirmed by:
    Just about every playoff series ever.

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  6. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    “it’s absolutely vital you have a shutdown closer”

    Poor Drew Storen; poor Nationals.

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  7. tbonemacd says:

    “Small sample size” didn’t kill the Yankees, extraordinarily poor discipline at the plate and poor execution in the field did. The Tigers, by contrast, pitched to their game plan with great discipline, and fielded pretty darn well.

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    • JG says:

      If there was a drinking game for “Yankees hack on 3-1, popping up what would have been ball four” I would be dead.

      Or maybe I wouldn’t have played it and would still be alive. Who knows.

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  8. daniel says:

    Don’t forget: Scoring twice as many runs as your opponent wins championships, unless you are the 1960 NY Yankees (and maybe others).

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  9. nsacpi says:

    Moral of story, small sample sizes can be used to prove and disprove just about any proposition you want to in baseball and many other fields.

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  10. Lex Logan says:

    Jeff, I laughed all the way through the article! Hilarious, and dead on target. We should ahve an option to dispense with live sporscasters and replace them with randomly selected cliches.

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  11. adam smith says:

    Contradicted: Delmon Young sucks

    Confirmed: Delmon Young is still the most hated player on fangraphs

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  12. Delmonfan says:

    It had me in stitched when some commentator on tbs implied that most hitters get too caught up in ‘scouting reports’ during the playoffs and delmon’s ‘see ball, hit ball’ approach really comes into it’s own. I have no indication either way if he was being ironic.

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  13. Andrew says:

    “In Thursday’s must-win Game 4, Sabathia got his ass kicked”

    God, that feels good to read. Let me do it again…

    “In Thursday’s must-win Game 4, Sabathia got his ass kicked”

    Ugh….. yes. So good.

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  14. FFFFan says:

    I love Fangraphs, but Mr. Sullivan must know that his argument is fallacious (even if the ultimate conclusion is correct). Success in a playoff is dependent on many factors. Failure in the playoffs therefore cannot be used to conclude that any single factor contradicts the theory.

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  15. Jason B says:

    “you can’t predict much about a four-to-seven-game stretch, and you can’t learn much from a four-to-seven-game stretch.”

    Well summarized, well said. We’ve got every talking head imaginable trying to draw all sorts of goofy conclusions – “This yankee lineup just isn’t built to win. The Nats should never have shut down Stras.” etc etc.

    (Not saying that I agree or disagree with either of the above sentiments, it’s just that it’s overly simplistic and reductive to try and use a 4-7 game sample to definitively prove either of those points.)

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