The Two Worlds of Baseball

The post-season was once a simple affair.

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series.

Baseball changed irrevocably in 1969.  Prior to that year the two leagues were comprised of ten or less teams apiece.  At the end of the year the team with the best record in each league advanced to a single seven-game World Series to decide the game’s champion.  From a design standpoint it was at once elegantly simple and incredibly effective.  For the 48 years prior to 1969 only 14 times had a second-place team in one league ended the season with more wins than the World Series representative from the opposite league (29%).  In 1969 the leagues added 2 teams apiece, split into Divisions, and instituted a second tier of playoff series.    In the 48-years since at least one World Series representative has had an inferior record within its league some 40 times.  And, in 15 instances the World Series was contested where neither team had the best record in their league.  The Playoffs simply introduced a new and alternate world to baseball.

Playoffs were not new to sports when baseball climbed on board in 1969.  The polar opposite to baseball’s pennant-or-bust approach was hockey.  When the National Hockey League took control of the Stanley Cup in 1927 it was a six-team league.  All six teams participated in the playoffs in a three-tiered format.  In 1947 the NHL went to a top four-of-six arrangement with two seven-game series.  Two brothers that owned a fish market memorialized the eight wins needed for the Stanley Cup in 1952 in Detroit.  As the Red Wings were sweeping their way to the title the brothers heaved an octopus onto the ice.  Each arm of the cephalopod represented one of the eight needed victories.   “Missing the playoffs” takes on a whole different meaning when only the bottom third of the league stays home.

Unlike hockey, baseball is a quotidian venture.  The margins between teams are razor thin.  Each game represents only 0.6% of the season.  Losing the pennant by a game was fodder for a horror movie.  The old system guaranteed two highly competitive and highly successful teams on the field for the ultimate series.  This is not only reflected in the regular season records of the participants, but in the series’ outcomes.  In those 48 years the teams with the best record in the game won the series 26 times.  That .541 average equates to 88 wins if projected to 162 games.  Since then, the team with baseball’s best record has won only 16 times.  That .333 average translates to 54 wins if projected to 162 games.  Clearly, this is another set of realities.

The manager’s role changes drastically when the regular season ends and the post-season playoffs begin.  The days between April and September are filled with organizational development tasks, strategic thinking, and short-term tactical decisions during the game.  There are kids to develop and mentor, old veterans to nurse through the grind, and a revolving door of injuries.  The truly successful regular season managers construct highly organized structures of roles and responsibilities.  As one mentor told me once, “If you have a tight structure all of your ducks will be in a row and they’ll all be quackin’.”  Over the course of 162 games the teams with the tight structures flourish.

The problem comes when the playoffs begin.  Many of the considerations that went into the daily decision-making are now moot.  There is no need to save the bullpen for the big weekend series with the nearest rival.  Soothing the ego of the aging veteran is not worth the risk of leaving old legs in the outfield late in the game.  And, the 20-game winner on the mound might not work himself out of this jam as he’s done so often this season.  The Behaviorists posited that we do what we get rewarded for doing.  All season long the successful regular season manager has been rewarded for following his structure.  In the post-season the structure turns into a box.  Those that can’t get outside of the box often die inside of it.  “He’s our Closer” is an extreme case of being anchored inside a cage of one’s own making. Matt Williams stuck with a clearly rattled Aaron Barrett in a crucial playoff situation.  It worked all season, right?  That means nothing once the single-elimination tournament starts.  Williams has some auspicious company, however.

When the game introduced the playoffs in 1969 the first managerial victim was none other than Hall of Famer Earl Weaver.  His teams of 1969, 1970, and 1971 won a combined 318 games for an aggregate .654 average.  Three years in a row they breezed through the initial best-of-five series in sweeps.  But, they lost two of the three World Series.  How good was that 1971 team?  It had four starting pitchers.  They all won 20 games.  Those four combined for 1080 innings.  That’s 6.9 innings per start on average. Put another way it constituted 76% of all the innings for the year.  Compare that to last year’s champion Houston.  The Astros used six starters for 757 innings, just over half of the total innings.   Earl was used to riding those starters until they faltered.  The problem with elimination series is that waiting until trouble arises is too late.  The formula for success during the season turns into the trap during the post-season.

Bobby Cox had much more than his fair share of post-season failure

No single manager epitomized this dichotomy of realities more than another Hall of Famer; Bobby Cox.  He was the poster child for structure.  Former players speak of him with reverence.  Everyone knew their role.  Stepping outside of the prescribed norms would earn one a tongue lashing.  His teams won regular season games by the boat load.  Earl Weaver had four good pitchers at once.  Bobby Cox had three Hall of Famers at once.  He took 15 Braves teams to the playoffs.  But, he only won the one World Series.  Over that stretch his teams were in 25 playoff series.  He won only 11 of them.  The team record for the 14 losing series was 24-53.  In elimination games at home the record was a “Double Golden Sombrero,” 0-8.  After getting past how stunningly poor this record is there arise two questions: How did this happen? And, why was nothing done to correct it mid-stream?  Implausibly, the record after 2000 was worse than before at 11-22.  The more experience Cox accumulated, the worse his teams performed.

The first question is easily answered.  Cox, like Weaver, ran his regulars into the ground all season.  His bench players rarely saw time.  All those innings catch up to a pitcher.  The old Engineering saw is that a system doesn’t show its cracks until it is under pressure.  The playoffs provided all the pressure needed to expose the cracks and let the vital fluids out.  From structure arise loyalties.  Cox, for example, played Brooks Conrad at 2nd base in his 2010 swan song League Division Series against San Francisco.  Conrad rewarded him by making four errors in three games.  He had other options.  Mostly, however, his teams just ran out of gas.  When he needed help from bench players they could barely see from squinting against the first bright lights encountered in weeks.

The second question is much more involved.  It encompasses ownership, the goals for the organization, and baseball’s intractable culture.  A more detailed look at it is in order next week in Part 2.

The nature of the schedule invites this situation.  After playing ball for the record for six months the season can end in a long weekend.  The two seasons require vastly different approaches.   Such nimbleness is not the norm among the profession.  Bruce Bochy apparently figured this out.  In his 12 years in San Diego he went to 4 playoffs amassing an uninspiring 8-16 record.  In the more recent 12 years in San Francisco he has also gone to 4 playoffs.  The record is 36-17 compiled in 10 playoff series.  The record for those series is 9-1.  To ascribe all that success to Madison Bumgarner misses a much larger whole.  Bochy in the playoffs is a tactical wizard.

Much like the Cadets at West Point studying tactics used by the great historic generals, the rest of baseball should be studying Bochy’s post-season approach.

Part 2 will appear next Thursday; September 20.

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