The Cruelty of the Playoffs & The 2000 White Sox

This is a pretty quiet time for the White Sox.  While their 2014 season is done, the offseason hasn't quite begun and - J.J. Hardy's extension notwithstanding - the hot stove hasn't been turned on yet.  But right now, fans of the Dodgers, Nationals, and Angels are all grieving after experiencing something that White Sox fans know all too well.

I was born in 1987.  There haven't been a whole lot of White Sox playoffs teams in my lifetime. About a month after I turned six, the White Sox were eliminated in the ALCS by the eventual '93 World Series Champion Blue Jays.  Then the strike wiped out some very good playoff odds in '94.

So it was that in the year 2000, as a 13-year old, I expected my favorite team to do pretty much what they always did - vaguely compete, but finish a distant second in the division. They got off to a great start, but I still wasn't ready to hope. They entered the day of June 12th up three games in the division and about to face their hardest test of the year--a 14-game stretch against their long-time nemesis Indians and a Yankees team that had just won two World Series via the sweep and were about to win another one. I figured this would be enough to put them irreparably behind Cleveland.

The opposite happened. The White Sox absolutely crushed that 14-game stretch, winning their first eight games while outscoring their opponents 65-32, mixing blowouts with one-run thrillers. I was absolutely giddy. Instead of being dead in the water they rattled off 11 wins in 14 games and stretched their division lead to eight games. They would not relinquish their lead and went on to win 95 games and the AL Central.

I absolutely adored that team. Frank Thomas had one of his classic elite seasons, now supported by an emerging Magglio Ordonez. The lineup was deep as well, sporting five other regulars with an OPS+ above 100 - while supplementing that with 158 superb PAs from trade acquisition Charles Johnson at catcher. The result was a team wRC+ of 106, good for 6th in the majors.*

*That year the Bonds-Kent-Burks Giants lead the majors at 112 wRC+ even with pitchers batting. Insane.

The rotation was unremarkable, but competent, with four above average arms (until Cal Eldred got hurt), and the bullpen fronted by Keith Foulke and Bobby Howry was excellent.

Then the 2000 American League Division Series happened. Over three miserably disappointing games, the offense that had hit .286/.356/.470 for 162 games only managed a .185/.300/.326 mark. Seattle would beat them 7-4 (in 10 innings), 5-2, and 2-1, the last one coming on a walk-off in the bottom of the 9th. 

That series broke my heart, and I tried to learn the lesson never to hope - fortunately, the 2005 season would come along later to teach me that the world is a beautiful place after all. But in 2000, I had no idea that 2005 was coming down the pipe. There was no comfort. I figured that was the best shot I may see, and after 162 glorious games, it was snuffed out in an instant.*

*It was some comfort when the next year what was basically the core of that Seattle team would go on to win 116 games in the regular season. At least we didn't lose to scrubs.

This walk down memory lane was inspired by a long-time friend who is a die hard Nationals fan. Right now he's going through something similar to what I felt after the 2000 ALDS. He's the type of guy who likes to know that there is a reason for things, a logical explanation. In fact, as I was writing this piece, he got in touch to ask me if I thought Jayson Werth's struggles in the NLDS were a result of his advanced age.

I gave him the cold comfort that it was seriously just bad luck.

People say it all the time. "In baseball, the playoffs are a crapshoot." "Oh, it's just small sample size." It gets so frustrating to hear, especially as you're watching it. A guy puts together 20-30 bad PAs in a short series that means so, so, so much and they look terrible doing it. Surely there's something more going on than small sample sizes there, right?

I won't rule out the possibility that some players are susceptible to nerves, although it's hard to prove when and how. And it's important to remember that it would make sense if everybody played worse in the playoffs than the regular season - after all, you're playing against exclusively playoff teams, and you aren't padding your stats against the Astros and Rockies of the world. Even more so for hitters, as playoff teams shorten their pitching staff and try to deploy exclusively their best pitchers, no longer needing to ration their workload by utilizing 5th starters or mop-up relievers. The marathon changes into a sprint.

But we don't even need those explanations for why a player might just not show up for a playoff series. It's just bad luck.

What does it mean to say, "Small sample size?"

I've only ever taken one formal statistics class, and it was over 10 years ago, but I still remember the first lesson very vividly. Our teacher divided the class into two groups. One half of the class was supposed to flip a coin 30 times and document the results. The other half was to write down a sequence of 30 heads or tails and try to make it look like it was the actual, random results of a coin flip.

Our teacher guessed which ones were real and which ones were fake with, if memory serves, 100% accuracy. The reason is that the people who actually flipped coins wound up with really long streaks of heads and tails - 7 in a row or more. Meanwhile, the ones who were guessing what it would look like had a lot more "H-T-H-T-H-T" back and forth sequences. The ones trying to make up the results wound up vastly underestimating variance...

The Washington Nationals were eliminated by the Giants in four games last week - although thanks to an 18-inning insanity-fest, they wound up playing five games worth of innings. The result? The Washington regulars got somewhere shy of 20 plate appearances.

That's it.

Bryce Harper would hit .294/.368/.882.* Anthony Rendon hit .368/.400/.368. The rest of the team went 14 for 123 with nine walks and two extra base hits. That's just awful, and it explains why despite holding the Giants to only nine runs in 44 innings they are still playing golf right now.

*If people ever forgive him for not being Mike Trout they might notice how crazy awesome he is and probably still will be.

Prominent here is Jayson Werth - a career 123 OPS+ batter who has put up an OPS of .898 over 226 career playoff PAs (go check out his 2009 playoffs, they were insane). But in these four games he went 1-for-20 with three walks. In Game 4 he was robbed of an extra base hit by Hunter Pence, but even with that his batting average for the series would only have been .100.

Why? It's infuriating to a fan to watch this guy who you know is great nothing.

Back to the coin. People like talking about coin flips because it's simple. 50-50. It makes sense. Let's say that all of Jayson Werth's PAs were coin flips as to whether he'd reach base - i.e. giving him a "true talent" of a .500 OBP, which is some Prime Bonds-Frank Thomas type stuff. We will call this .500 OBP player Coin Werth

This is totally unscientific, but I went to and flipped sets of 20 coins. Heads was "reached base" and tails was "out." I did this 20 times. Each of these sets of 20 flips represents a theoretical 20 PAs, which is what Werth got this postseason.

Three times the results were 10-10. Six times out of the 20, Coin Werth went absolutely berserk, reaching base 15, 12, 16, 13, 14, and 15 times out of 20. Amusingly, the first four of those happened in order - an 80 "PA" chunk of sheer dominance by Coin Werth.

But then here's something to keep in mind: If I had decided instead that heads was "out" and tails was "reached base" then all of a sudden this is 80 PAs where Coin Werth is unplayable garbage, despite the exact same odds of either one happening.

The 2014 Nationals - and the 2000 White Sox - had this happen to them. They only had a few games and probability just crushed them.

In the 2000 ALDS, Frank Thomas went 0/9 with four walks. He only got 13 "coin flips." And now remember that Andrew McCutchen lead the majors in OBP this year with .410. That's significantly lower than the .500 OBP Coin Werth featured. What would it look like if we did 20 flips of a weighted coin?

Can we extract any real meaning out of Jayson Werth's 20 PAs?

Not really. Only that baseball is fickle and often cruel. After 162 games of excellent baseball, the Nationals had some rotten rolls of the dice, and after heartbreak in 2012, disappointment in 2013, they are once again left scratching their heads. The Dodgers offense only really showed up for one game - and of course, that is the game that Clayton Kershaw randomly gets lit up after one of the best seasons in recent memory. The Angels had a team OPS+ of 109 this year - but Mike Trout went 1-for-12 and their offense hit .170 for three games and so they got swept. So it goes. 

There's always next year.


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