Friday, October 28, 2005

There Is No Choke…
By Ben Valentine

Yeah I know the World Series is over, thus sending us to the exciting hot stove league. But here’s one last post about October baseball as a follow up to something I started a week ago, when I wrote a scathing column/post on the myth of Derek Jeter’s postseason “clutch ness” and Alex Rodriguez’s supposed lack thereof. My conclusion at was that the idea a player improved or declined performance wise in the postseason was the real myth. In other words, given a large enough sample size, a baseball player’s postseason stats would reflect their regular season/career numbers.

However while the hitters I had looked at certainly bore that out, I was curious to see pitchers, especially since the only real exception I had found to my rule was Mariano Rivera. My interest was sparked further when, on my favorite local radio program to rip, there was talk about who was a better postseason pitcher, Roger Clemens or Tom Seaver. Mind you, Seaver had so few postseason starts, it isn’t even worth discussing in anything but the hypothetical, but it did get me in the mood to start debunking again.

Plus I was bored and had nothing better to do.

Now finding pitchers with large enough sample sizes wasn’t easy, so I went to some old standbys, former Yankees and Braves; teams that are in the postseason every year. Some classic names came up; “clutch” Andy Pettitte, and not so clutch Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. These guys, except for Mike Mussina (who I included just to put a current Yankee on the list), pitched what equates to a season worth of baseball in October. What did the numbers say? Career numbers are on top, postseason is listed second.

Andy Pettitte- 172- 91, 3.78 ERA, 2098 IP, 1.34 WHIP, 6.54 K/9, 2.79 BB/9, 2.26 K/BB
(34 starts)- 14-9, 4.08 ERA, 212 IP, 1.35 WHIP, 5.69 K/9, 2.46 BB/9, 2.48 K/BB

Comment- Like Jeter, Pettitte is “Mr. Big start” all thanks to a few memories, the most important being of him beating John Smoltz 1-0 in 1996. Well it turns out Andy is a third starter in the postseason just like in the regular season. In fact, his K/9 takes a hit in October, suggesting he’s slightly worse. However, since he also walks fewer hitters, the difference seems to be negligible overall.

Roger Clemens- 341- 172, 3.12 ERA, 4704.1 IP, 1.17 WHIP, 8.61 K/9, 2.91 BB/9, 2.85 K/BB
(34 games)- 12-8, 3.66 ERA, 196.2 IP, 1.21 WHIP, 7.87 K/9, 3.11 BB/9, 2.53 K/BB

Comment- Well, I guess Clemens is the choker. After all, he’s only striking out close to eight batters a game in the postseason. Oh yeah and his walks are up slightly. Bottom line, Roger Clemens is a great regular season pitcher and not surprisingly, he’s been one of the best postseason pitchers as well.

Greg Maddux- 318-189, 3.01 ERA, 4406.1 IP, 1.13 WHIP, 6.23 K/9, 1.85 BB/9, 2.86 K/BB
(31 games)- 11-14, 3.22 ERA, 190 IP, 1.22 WHIP, 5.78 K/9, 2.27 BB/9, 2.54 K/BB

Comment- Maddux got the rep as a mediocre postseason starter but as you can see that’s not really justified. He’s quite good in the postseason, just not as dominant as he in the regular season. But then he’s facing better hitters in October. Still there’s nothing wrong with those numbers and they aren’t really out of line with his regular season numbers.

Tom Glavine- 275- 184, 3.44 ERA, 3951.2 IP, 1.30 WHIP, 5.35 K/9, 3.05 BB/9, 1.60 K/BB
(32 games)- 12-15, 3.44 ERA, 201.1 IP, 1.27 WHIP, 6.12 K/9, 3.58 BB/9, 1.71 K/BB

-Comment- Another guy who’s gotten a bad rap over the years, Glavine even more so than Maddux has pitched to the same level in the postseason as he had in the regular season. His strikeouts go up, but also are accompanied by an elevated walk total, keeping his K/BB basically the same. The difference in his WHIP is negligible. If Tom Glavine is a mediocre playoff pitcher, then he was a mediocre pitcher all the time. Hell, I know it isn’t a particularly important stat but his ERA is even the same postseason and career.

John Smoltz- 177-128, 3.26, 2929.1 IP, 1.17 WHIP, 7.89 K/9, 2.71 BB/9, 2.70 K/BB
(40 games)- 15-4, 2.65 ERA, 207 IP, 194 K, 67 BB, 1.14 WHIP, 8.43 K/9, 2.91 BB/9, 2.90 K/BB

-Comment- Smoltz of course has pitched some of this as a reliever and I’m still not certain if that has any effect on the overall numbers. However, like the others, his numbers closely reflect what he’s done in the regular season. While the K numbers are up, so are the walks, resulting in a slightly better but not overwhelmingly noticeable improvement in K/BB. Sure his ERA is lower, which puts him in class by himself among the guys close to 200 innings, but ERA is in reality the least important stat there. By the way, despite what one game in 1996 says, John Smoltz is a better postseason pitcher than Andy Pettitte. (Hint as to why: It has to do with their overall ability)

Mike Mussina- 224- 127, 3.64 ERA, 3013 IP, 1.18 WHIP, 7.17 K/9, 2.04 BB/9, 3.39 K/BB
(21 games)- 7-7, 3.30 ERA, 128 IP, 1.08 WHIP, 9.63 K/9, 2.04 BB/9, 4.72 K/BB

Comment- The smallest sample size and the greatest fluctuation. However, it isn’t entirely impossible for a pitcher of Mussina’s caliber to have a half season like this; i.e., he puts up numbers like from April- July and then return to form as time goes on. His most recent starts hit his numbers a bit, so should he make anymore postseason starts, one would assume it would bring his numbers back closer towards his career numbers (especially since as a declining pitcher, he’s just not going to pitch like he did in 2002)

So, like with the Yankee hitters, it appears that the pitchers looked at here pitch in October like they do in April, June, or yes September. Andy Pettitte is not as good a postseason pitcher as Smoltz, Clemens, or Maddux because, well he isn’t as good talent wise as them. As usual perception and selective memory come into play. The Braves pitchers are “chokers” because they only won one World Series; while a guy like Pettitte is clutch because he won four. Notice Clemens shed a lot of the rap about him after putting on the pinstripes. Needless to say, while starting pitching clearly matters in October, it is not everything. The Braves teams were flawed because of their pen, where as that was the strength of the Yankees. Ironic how Mariano Rivera can make Andy Pettitte into something more than he is, while Mark Wohlers can tarnish the name of an all time great like Maddux.

To be fair, this is a small group of players here. Is it possible there are such things as “chokers?” Sure and there’s probably a lot more that could and should be done with this. But in the numbers I’ve looked at so far, the idea that some players are not clutch isn’t valid. And if that’s the case, then one can also toss out the idea of “experience” being key in the postseason. Basically, a guy is going to pitch based on his talent level. If you’re starting Jake Peavy against Andy Pettitte, then Peavy should win because he’s the better pitcher. He might not, but then he might not have won in the regular season either.

In the end, it comes back to a simple fact; the better team with the better players usually wins. It doesn’t matter if it’s April or October. That’s just the way it is.

So you believers in postseason clutch ness can have Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte. I’ll take A-Rod and Smoltz over them in a big game any day of the week.

A quick side note- This ranks up there with my Zach Duke post back in August as the tell tale sign, as my friends would put it, "You need a job or a girlfriend." If anyone out there would like to help with either, drop me an email.


Blogger David Arnott said...

Sandy Koufax. Small sample size, but DAMN.

12:59 PM  
Anonymous euclidiot said...

Hi Ben,

I think you missed my comment on your previous A-Rod/Jeter post. I'd be interested to know what your thoughts are. Here it is again:

It seems that a lot of the talk is really based on the 96-00 Yankees v. 01-05 Yankees. Jeter is the face of the Yankees dynasty and, fair or not, Rodriguez is a symbol of Steinbrenner's recent futility (even though he's only seen 2 playoffs with the Yanks).

That being said, I'd like to point out something that you overlooked in the statistical breakdown between Jeter and Rodriguez:

Rodriguez's numbers include his years with the Mariners (when they made the postseason in 97 and 00, plus the limited action he saw in 95). Exclude those games and you'll see that as a Yankee A-rod is hitting a much more modest .277- with 3 HRs, 6 2Bs, and 12 BBs in 65 ABs.

And if you take away that crazy 19-8 win over the Sox last year, Rodriguez is hitting a measly .250- with 2 HRs and 4 2Bs in 60 ABs.

1:00 AM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

While I'll leave Ben free to respond as he sees fit, here's my take:

You can't place arbitrary restrictions on what stats we use when making a comparison, or else you come up with statistics that don't really mean anything. 60 ABs is a miniscule sample size, and with small sample sizes you can prove anything. Heck, in the 1998 playoffs, Jeter hit .235 in 51 ABs and failed to homer.

When you parse the stats to just include A-Rod's playoff numbers as a Yankee, you're deluding yourself. Using playoff stats to judge most players is silly anyhow, because the sample size is so small. Only for a few players, guys like Jeter who have had nearly a season's worth of ABs (462) can you even begin to legitimately speculate about their ability as a "clutch" hitter. And what you find, almost always, is that they remain the same player they've always been. Most of these guys are dealing with so much pressure during the regular season that additional pressure in the playoffs doesn't seem to matter.

I'm sure I can find 60-AB stretches during this year when A-Rod hit worse that .250, but that doesn't mean that he's not really a .300/50 HR guy. It just means he was in a slump. It's unfortunate for the Yankees that he's slumped each of the last two post-seasons, but he's going to need hundreds of more at-bats before you convince me that it's due to anything more complicated than chance.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Euclidiot- Zach summed it up pretty well for me. So I'll just add that I do agree A-Rod has become the symbol of the 01-05 futility, largely because of his name and also because of some stupid actions (swapping at Arroyo's glove last year). However ironically, the problem with the Yankees has not been their offense, it's been their pitching for the most part.

In 2001, if Mariano does what he always does, they win. In 2002, they hit, but got outhit by Anahiem. In 2003, they suffered through David Wells pulling himself out of a WS start and Jeff Weaver in extra innings in the crucial game 4. Last year they were out of game seven before the fourth inning because of their starters, not to mention outside of Mariano, their pen was atrocious the whole series. This year, their starters weren't terrible, but they weren't great.

Even though for the most part the stats say differently, I think it's easier for the media and the fans to blame A-Rod, Giambi and Sheffield for this current Yankee playoff "woes" because they're bigger names and of course, everyday players. But the truth of the matter is if the Yankee pitching, starting and relief was as good as it was from 96-01, they would have won at least one of these last four WS.

3:22 PM  

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