Talkin’ About Playoffs

While watching the playoffs last October, I realized that I had never seen rookies play such a prominent role in the postseason before.  Pitchers like Michael Wacha, Gerrit Cole, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Sonny Gray propelled their teams into contention during the regular season, and took the hill in multiple elimination games.  The inimitable Yasiel Puig had a similar impact on the Dodgers’ fortunes in 2013.

This observation led me to investigate rookie performance during the 2013 regular season.  Were rookies contributing to the success of their teams more so than in the past?  Were rookie pitchers outperforming rookie hitters?  How about rookies on playoff teams versus non-playoff teams?

Using WAR data from Baseball Reference (sorry, guys) I measured rookies’ contribution to overall team success in 2000-2013, defined as rookie WAR divided by their team’s WAR.  A few definitions before jumping in to the findings:

  • Rookies are players who have accumulated less than 130 AB (or 50 IP) and less than 45 days on an active roster prior to their rookie season
  • For consistency across time, teams that won the second wild-card slot in 2012 and 2013 are not considered playoff teams (u mad, Reds and Indians fans?)
  • Rookie pitcher WAR = amount of WAR created by a team’s rookie pitchers
  • Rookie pitcher share of WAR = % of a team’s WAR created by rookie pitchers
  • Rookie batter WAR = amount of WAR created by a team’s rookie batters
  • Rookie batter share of WAR = % of a team’s WAR created by rookie batters
  • Rookie total WAR = Rookie batter WAR + Rookie pitcher WAR
  • Rookie share of total WAR = Rookie pitcher share of WAR + Rookie batter share of WAR

In chart 1, rookie share of total WAR for the average team in 2013 (11.3%) is above the long-run average of 8%, and was only exceeded in 2006 (12.7%).  But there was no discernible difference in rookie share of total WAR between the average playoff team (10.9%) and non-playoff team (11.4%) last season.  So far, it would appear as though I need to adjust my TV.

The data becomes more interesting when the average team’s rookie share of total WAR is decomposed into pitcher and batters’ contributions (chart 2).  There is a rapid rise in rookie pitcher share of WAR between 2010 and 2013, peaking last season at 6.7% of the average team’s WAR.  This increase was so strong, it more than made up for a decrease in rookie batter share of WAR during the same timeframe, from 6.5% in 2010 to 4.6% last season.

These trends become starker when the analysis is limited to playoff teams (chart 3).  On the average playoff team in 2013, rookies provided 10.9% of WAR, a step down from the high reached in 2012.  But there is still a huge rise in rookie pitcher share of WAR between 2010 and 2013, to 8.7% last season, and a concurrent decrease in rookie batter share of WAR, to 2.2%.  In other words, 80% of the average 2013 playoff team’s rookie total WAR was generated by pitchers.  If not for a certain Cuban-American hero with a penchant for bat-flipping, that share would have been even higher.

But some evidence, as well as anecdotal observation, suggests that pitchers in general have become more dominant over the past few seasons.  Is this trend, observed so far among rookies, true of all pitchers?  Over the past fourteen seasons, the average team has generated between 36-44% of WAR from pitchers (chart 4).  This share has been consistent over time, and has edged up only slightly during the past few seasons.  This suggests that rookie pitchers, especially those on playoff teams, really did excel in 2013.

Now, let’s look at just how good the rookie pitchers on playoff teams were last season (chart 5).  Together, the 54 rookie pitchers on 2013 playoff teams generated 29.6 WAR, which is slightly higher than last year’s total (29.1 WAR) and much higher than the long-run average (16.0 WAR).  What’s even more impressive is that last season, 57% of all 30 teams’ rookie pitcher WAR was generated by the rookie pitchers on playoff teams, a higher share than in any other season since 2000.  Cumulatively, 54 rookie pitchers on 8 teams outperformed 151 rookies on 22 teams.  Not bad.

But wait…there’s more.  By focusing on the best rookies on playoff teams (arbitrarily defined here as those who generated 1+ WAR), we see that there were 20 such players last season (chart 6).  Of that number, 16 were pitchers, like Shelby Miller, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Julio Teheran.  Five of those pitchers were on the Cardinals (Miller, Siegrist, Wacha, Rosenthal, and Maness.)  The concentration of top rookie pitchers on playoff teams last year is the highest in at least fourteen seasons.

My initial observation, “Wow, there are lots of rookie pitchers killing it in the 2013 playoffs!” looks to be borne out in the data.  This raises two other interesting questions:

1.  For any of last year’s playoff teams, did rookie pitchers provide enough value to get their team into the playoffs?

2.  Is the rookie pitcher observation a one-time anomaly, or indicative of a larger trend?

The first question is relatively easy to answer.  We can compare each playoff team’s rookie pitcher WAR (essentially, how many more games the team won because of rookie pitchers) to the number of additional games each playoff team could have lost and still made the playoffs without tying a second-place team (let’s call this the buffer). 

For four out of eight playoff teams (again, I exclude the second wild-cards), rookie pitcher WAR is higher than the buffer (chart 7).  But since Detroit and Tampa made the playoffs by one game, and since Pittsburgh’s rookie pitcher WAR is less than one game higher than the buffer, it’s hard to argue that rookie pitchers definitively moved the needle for them. Andy Dirks or Yunel Escobar could have just as easily gotten their teams over the hump, since they also created more than 1 WAR.

The Cardinals are the one team whose rookie pitchers probably got them into the playoffs.  They got 9.7 extra wins from their rookie pitchers (almost 23% of the entire team’s WAR), and made the playoffs by 6 games.

The second question is harder to answer, since the 2014 season hasn’t started yet.  There’s no clear reason why rookie pitchers on playoff teams would suddenly start playing extremely well, especially since it doesn’t look like they’re causing their teams to make the playoffs.  The likeliest explanation is that the top teams in the league happened to have outstanding rookie pitchers last year.  Sometimes, “stuff” happens.

But if you want to prove me wrong, and show that last year’s playoff teams have developed great farm systems capable of producing more top rookie pitchers, pay close attention to what Jameson Taillon (Pirates), Carlos Martinez (Cardinals), Jake Odorizzi (Rays), and Allen Webster (Red Sox) bring to the table in 2014.  All four pitchers are on Baseball America’s list of top 100 prospects, are on last year’s playoff teams, and are projected to crack the majors this season.  If they get off to a hot start, and if they help their teams return to the playoffs, I might have to revisit my conclusion next winter.



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Anthony Dedousis is a long-suffering Mets fan, proud Long Islander, and graduate of Harvard College. He's a newly transplanted Chicagoan and MBA student at Chicago Booth. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonydedousis, and check out his previous work at dedousis.blogspot.com.


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Jonah Pemstein
Member

You couldn’t put the graphs in the article…?

foxinsox
Member
Member

Seems to me that you sold the rookies short. Tampa is a maybe with 4.7 rookie war and a buffer of 1?

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