Defense Doesn’t Win Championships
It wasn’t long ago that Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh brought down the hard truth on the Tigers and the Athletics: having an ace pitcher doesn’t improve a team’s chances of winning in the postseason. That’s good for the Orioles, then! What if something the Orioles did have and are good at translates to postseason success? Striking out probably doesn’t help in October, and neither does everyone going down with injuries.1 The Orioles do have something on their side though, and that’s a very good infield defense.
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The logic behind the possibility of an infield defense contributing to postseason success is this: the best pitchers induce weak contact and strikeouts, but good pitchers can get the ball on the ground. Having a superb set of infielders around a good pitcher should therefore be a boon to a team that might have to rely on a handful of average-to-good pitchers during the postseason. It should be a help to the great pitchers who get a lot of weak groundouts. In short, a good defense gets you to 27 outs without giving many (or any) away.
We can extend that to the outfield as well. Great outfield defenses are full of fast, rangey players that don’t miss should-be outs and often turn low-percentage plays into outs. Even average pitchers give up fly balls, so a good outfield defense should take away some extra base hits, or turn singles into outs.
If you’ve read the title of this article,2 you already know that this isn’t the case. To prove it, I measured the difference between each postseason team from 2009-2013’s postseason winning percentage and their regular season winning percentage, and treated that as an independent variable that would be affected by infield and outfield defense. Defensive ability was judged by adding up each team’s Def scores on FanGraphs, a measure of the number of runs above or below average a team is at each defensive position. I excluded pitchers because, come on, nobody has ever said, “Thank goodness we have so many Gold Glove pitchers on our team. We’d be lost without them!”
The p-value for infield defense as a variable that helps to determine improved postseason winning performance is 0.53, which is nowhere near statistically significant when working with a 95% confidence interval. The p-value for outfield defense was 0.91, which, again, was nowhere near statistically significant. But no team would sniff the World Series, much less the postseason, with nine of sumo wrestlers manning the field, so what gives?
I’ll echo and expand on what Lindbergh said in his Grantland article: every team in the postseason is good – teams don’t get that far without having a good pitching staff, a good offense, and a good defense. The compressed level of quality between teams means that every night, a good defense has to lose. That defense isn’t in itself a deciding factor in what makes teams great in the postseason doesn’t mean defense isn’t valuable. It just doesn’t become an unusually more valuable part of the game of baseball in short series.
What is interesting is the makeup of playoff teams’ defensive numbers. Since 2009, and probably long before that, every team’s first basemen have been worth some negative number of runs below average. Not only does infield defense mean next to nothing in terms of helping a team win in the playoffs, it’s entirely unheard of for any playoff team to have an above-average defender at first base. This is presumably because first base is the go-to position for terrific power batters who are generally more massive and less agile than anyone else on the team, save for maybe the catcher. It’s the one position that every single team – successful or not – is willing to give up on defensively in favor of the best hitter they can find.
Most postseason teams from the last five years seemed to fall into one of two groups, in terms of infield defense: those with it, and those without it. Those with a good cumulative infield were often 30 and 40 runs above average in infield defense, while those without it were very near average.
In the outfield, most teams were below average on defense. My take is that teams are willing to sacrifice the potential stopping of a run for the potential scoring of one, and put outfielders like Nelson Cruz (multiple postseason appearances with the Rangers) in one of the corners. It’s been said that stopping a run is less expensive than scoring one, but no team can win a game 0-0.
Lindbergh did point out that the best indicator of a team’s postseason performance is their regular season performance. While anyone can win in a small sample size, the postseason is also a small sample size of series. Over a very long time frame, the best teams win more often than not.
The best thing the Orioles can do to set themselves up for a postseason run is continue being one of the best teams in baseball.
1. Get well soon, Manny!
2. You’ve probably read the title of this article.