Baseball BeatOctober 12, 2009
Can't Sweep This Lesson Under the Rug
By Rich Lederer

Five days into the postseason and only the Colorado Rockies-Philadelphia Phillies Division Championship Series remains in doubt. The other three series concluded on Saturday and Sunday with the Dodgers, Angels, and Yankees sweeping their opponents.

Major League Baseball and FOX must be thrilled, knowing that three of the four finalists are from the Los Angeles and New York markets. I guess it could be better if the Mets were still playing but this is about as good as it gets otherwise (with apologies to Red Sox and Cubs fans). If the Dodgers win the NLCS, it will mean either the first Freeway Series ever or the 12th World Series matchup between the team formerly from Brooklyn and the New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers have won eight of the previous 11 World Series clashes between these two titans.

While a Dodgers-Angels World Series may not optimize interest on the east coast, it would likely outdraw the Bay Bridge Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A's in 1989. Twenty years ago, an earthquake before Game 3 caused a ten-day disruption in play. Despite the delay, the World Series ended on October 28 as the A's swept the Giants with San Francisco becoming the first team never to hold a lead at one point during the Series.

If everything goes swimmingly this year, the World Series won't end until November 1, at the earliest. It could last as late as November 5 should the Series go seven games. For weather's sake (and for other reasons), I'm rooting against a Yankees-Rockies duel that won't be decided until after Halloween.

In the meantime, there is at least one lesson to be learned from the Division Championship Series. The teams with the best starting pitchers don't necessarily win these things — even if they sport two Cy Young Award candidates (as St. Louis did with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright) or two No. 1s (like Boston's Jon Lester and Josh Beckett). Not only did the Cardinals and Red Sox lose their respective series, they didn't win a single game. Zero. Zilch. Nada. None. Instead, it was three and done for both of these clubs.

Look, I'm as guilty as the next guy in perhaps paying more attention to the top two starters than other factors, including home field advantage. I mean, I picked the Redbirds and Sox to beat the Dodgers and Angels, respectively, in five games. In our NLDS roundtable, I wrote, "My heart and even my mind says Dodgers, but I'm a sucker for the top-heavy Pujols/Holliday/Carpenter/Wainwright fearsome foursome." You might say I was overly enamored with the big names here. Shame on me.

I'll also plead guilty to choosing St. Louis and Boston partly as a hedge against my hometown teams losing. While I'm usually not the type to worry about sticking my neck out, I figured that I would be happier about the Dodgers and Angels winning than losing my predictions. That said, I still feel as if there is an important takeaway from these series. Do not overestimate (or underestimate) the strength of the starting pitchers in a Division or League Championship Series or, for that matter, a World Series. Especially based on names or reputations.

While Carpenter and Wainwright ranked third and sixth in the NL in Fielding Independent Pitching ERA (commonly referred to as FIP), Clayton Kershaw was FIFTH.

Over in the AL, Lester and Beckett finished with the fifth- and seventh-best FIPs but John Lackey and Jered Weaver placed ninth and 13th among the 30 qualified pitchers. The differences just weren't all that great. Lester's FIP for 2009 (3.15) was just over a half run better than Lackey's (3.73) while Beckett's (3.63) was slightly less than a half run lower than Weaver's (4.04).

Although beneficial, a half run per nine innings isn't insurmountable. Remember, FIP doesn't account for team defense, much less hitting and running the bases. If run prevention is 50% of the equation, pitching might be approximately 33% of the overall total. Put another way, a team can overcome a half run from pitching inferiority via hitting, baserunning, and team defense, not to mention the home field advantage that the Dodgers and Angels both held in the Division Championship Series.

I love pitching prowess. However, we shouldn't lose perspective on how tight the disparities may be as well as the other factors that impact run prevention and creation. Lastly, we should also be aware that a certain level of randomness always plays a part in such a short series.



I think your last line is the one with the most truth to it. People are now saying these series have "proven" that the winners were superior to the losers, but of course that isn't necessarily true. Play them 100+ times and you'll get a slew of different results. I STILL think the Red Sox would win against the Angels over half the time, but it didn't work out in the only chance they were given, so kudos to the Angels for a great job.

"Predicting" who will win is really nothing more than thinking about which team is better, and potentially being a better team can't save a team like Boston from its lineup going ice cold. That's why we play the game, that's why we love the playoffs, and that's why the Yankees aren't already holding up a trophy.

I'm not at all sure that if the Red Sox played the Angels 100+ times, with two-thirds of the games on the road, the Sox would win most of the time. The Sox were a sub-.500 team on the road.

And it shouldn't be all that surprising when a team with ostensibly the top 2 starting pitchers gets swept in a short series. In trying to predict these series, people tend to limit the analysis to the question of which team has the better starters. They seem to forget that the two opposing pitchers aren't facing the same lineup. The question isn't whether Lester is better than Lackey, but whether the Lester, facing the Angels lineup, is likely to give up more runs than Lackey, facing the Red Sox lineup.

I believe these teams were so evenly matched that this ALDS was no more than a 52-48 proposition one way or the other. If that series were played 100 times, the Angels might have swept 10-15% of the time. The same holds true for the Red Sox. As it turned out, the Angels won all three games in the one and only series that was played on the field. Like you wrote, kudos to them.

To follow up on my previous comment, based on runs scored during the regular season, the Angels had a 14% more potent offense at home than the RS had on the road (444 runs vs. 391). Lackey's home ERA and Lester's road ERA were identical: 3.86. Weaver's home ERA (2.90) was nearly a run and a quarter lower than Beckett's road ERA (4.13). I understand there's a lot of noise in these stats, but still: there was no reason to annoint the tandem of Lester and Beckett as being somehow unbeatable on the road against Lackey, Weaver, and a formidable Angels offense.

I don't think many people thought Lester and Beckett were "unbeatable" on the road, but your point is well taken, particularly with the caveat that "there's a lot of noise" in the stats you quoted.

I trust you didn't, but Jeremy in the Angels-Red Sox preview post below says: "I think the Red Sox win in 4. I don't see them losing a game where Beckett or Lester pitches."

I don't think Jeremy's take was all that unusual. A lot of pundits seemed to think that Lester and Beckett were going to completely shut down any offenses they faced in the postseason. Granted, these are two very good pitchers, but they weren't so good in 2009 or throughout their careers generally that they deserved to be penciled in as automatic wins whenever they took the hill in a postseason start.