In a baseball world where teams better offenses in the regular season lose in the playoffs and home teams lose more often in October, it can be hard to know what works in the playoffs. Picking winners can be especially difficult when teams are relatively similar and evenly matched, as the Phillies and Rockies are.
Still, while many pundits like to wax rhapsodic about the little things, I like to think that in general, in the playoffs, the big things matter. Sure, playoff series often turn on the little things: Last season, the Cardinals were helped immeasurably by a series of defensive miscues; Derek Jeter’s ridiculous flip play helped the 95-win Yankees topple a 102-win Oakland team; some say that Steve Bartman derailed the Cubs in 2003. Nonetheless, Despite those and many other memorable postseason plays, I still like to think that the big things matter, and for the most part strongly determine the outcome of a series. And that’s why the Phillies will win.
Granted, it won’t be easy as some would think. Despite the fact that many analysts have picked the Phillies to advance to the NLCS and sports books have them as favorites, the Rockies actually finished with a better record and a better run differential. Perhaps more ominously, research on what types of teams have succeeded in the postseason shows that Colorado, as the team with better pitching and defens, actually better fit the profile of a successful postseason team than the Phillies. Heck, the Phillies probably can’t even count on the famed Coors Hangover Effect to give them a boost.
Still, in a short series, anything can happen, and having the best offense, offensive players and starter can go a long way toward turning “anything” into a Phillies win.
May the best players win
To me, one of the biggest considerations in evaluating a postseason series is which team has the best players. While overall team performance (ie. regular season wins, run differential) is important too, having the best players has more impact in the postseason because of scheduling and stakes. With division series this season lasting up to seven days and every game crucial, starters will play every game and aces can pitch more of the innings. And in this series, the Phillies definitely have the best players.
On offense, adjusted for position and park, the Phillies have the best player in the series in Chase Utley and four of the top five. Here’s a look at some of the stars in the series ranked by Baseball Prospectus’ VORPr, which is a rate stat that compares players to replacement level players at each position. (That it’s a rate stat helps adjust for variations in regular season playing that probably won’t manifest themselves in the playoffs, such as Utley’s injury.)
PLAYER VORPr Utley, C. .503 Holliday, M. .466 Rollins, J. .381 Howard, R. .371 Rowand, A. .341 Helton, T. .337
The mileage that Phillies can get out of their impact bats at premium defensive positions will carry them farther in the postseason than it would in the regular season, where they outscored the Rockies 892 to 860, despite the Rockies’ Coors Field advantage.
The Phillies also have the advantage of having the best pitcher in the series. Jeff Francis is an emerging star, and his performance in Coors can’t be discounted, but at this point, Cole Hamels is clearly in another category, even when adjusting for park:
PLAYER W ERA ERA+ xFIP K/BB HR/9 Hamels, C. 15 3.39 112 3.53 4.12 1.23 Francis, J. 17 4.22 135 4.25 2.62 1.05
Francis pitched 32 more innings than Hamels during the regular season, which helped contribute to the Rockies’ surprisingly superior run differential, but in this series, both game one starters could start a potential game five with normal rest, giving them an equal opportunity to impact the series.
Lastly, the scheduling of the series can also help neutralize the Rockies’ regular season advantage in the pen. With off-days scheduled after games two and four, depth in the pen isn’t as important—after all, there’ll be plenty of time to rest in the offseason. The Rockies had a better bullpen ERA than the Phillies this season, but the top three in the Phillies pen (Brett Myers, Tom Gordon and J.C. Romero) actually don’t fare too poorly against the top three in the Rockies’ (Manny Corpas, Brian Fuentes and one out of Matt Herges, LaTroy Hawkins and Jimmy Affedlt). The Phillies have worked their pen hard down the stretch, with Myers, Gordon and Romero basically appearing in every other game for the Phils in September, but Myers is a converted starter and should be able to handle the innings, while Gordon and Romero have performed well lately, hopefully signaling that they still have something left.
So that’s the big picture. The Phillies’ stars should have more of an impact in a short series, helping to narrow the already small regular season gap, while the structure of the series can help minimize the Phillies’ weakness in the pen and their run prevention deficiency. In one auspicious sign, the wisdom of the crowd seems to favor the Phillies as well. THT’s own John Beamer has written extensively about prediction markets and their utility in projecting the future, but the simplified upshot is that a group of people collectively is almost always more knowledgeable than even the most informed individual in that crowd. And in this case, the crowds, as represented by the “investors” at Tradesports, collectively think that the Phillies have a 55% chance of winning the series. And while those aren’t tremendous odds, in a baseball world where Derek Jeter can single-flippedly crush the A’s in the playoffs, I’ll take them.
References & Resources
Disagree? Here’s why Geoff Young thinks the Rockies will win.