THE SECRET SAUCE
My pals at Baseball Prospectus have a little congeries of stats we call the Secret Sauce. Introduced in the book, Baseball Between the Numbers, to which your humble host contributed a chapter and a little page about the relationship between stats and Stephen King’s “Cujo,” the Secret Sauce ranks teams by how well they do in the three key areas that correlate to winning postseason games. As explained here by sauce-master Nate Silver, they are:
1. A power pitching staff, as measured by strikeout rate.
2. A good closer.
3. A good defense.
I won’t get into how these ranking are derived, because they involve some of those esoteric statistics that I suspect make many of y’all’s eyes glaze over. Still, we can appreciate what the rankings say by looking at some more commonplace measures. Here is how the likely postseason teams fare, in reverse order:
No. 20 PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
The Phillies have been strong in strikeouts, both in the rotation, where Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton have done their part, and particularly in the bullpen, but the pen has been a disaster overall, accounting for the team’s low ranking here. As of today, Brad Lidge and Charlie Manuel are still trying to figure out what the former’s role will be going forward, which is a problem given that the season is nearly over. You wouldn’t want to say that Lidge has gone Steve Blass on the Phillies, but six walks and two home runs per nine makes a compelling case that he has. The Phillies can at least take justifiable pride in their strong defensive infield of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Pedro Feliz.
No. 13 TEXAS RANGERS
The Rangers, second in the American League in runs allowed (4.41 per game; the Mariners lead at 4.36), are third from last in strikeouts per nine innings, which suggests a lot of balls in play. The reason that this is a particularly bad thing in the playoffs is pretty basic: In a regular season game against the Baltimore Orioles, your team might fail to get a lot of strikeouts but nothing happens anyway, because when they hit the ball it goes “piff,” not “boom!” In the playoffs, where the best offenses are usually to be found, balls in play tend to do real damage. Note that AL starters are averaging 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings; Rangers starters are whiffing 5.6.
The Rangers have been solid on defense, with the second-best record in the league of turning balls in play into outs (that’s how they survive the weak strikeout rate). Frank Francisco has been effective, if not a lights-out closer. Neftali Perez’s crazy debut doesn’t enter into these calculations, but you can’t forget about him when talking about the Rangers’ end game.
No. 11 THE LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA, USA
The Angels get knocked down on the power pitching angle, as overall they are a tick below average in strikeouts per nine, and in defense, which has been just average or a little below. Call it the Bobby Abreu Effect. Closer Brien Fuentes leads the AL with 40 saves but has also blown six, and right-handed hitters are slugging .462 against him. None of this is a reason to take the Angels likely, as Jered Weaver and John Lackey, combined with their fine offense, should be able to keep them in at least the first two games of any short series. Still, this is not Mike Scioscia’s usual flavor of team.
No. 10 ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
The Cardinals get strikeouts from starters Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. The rest of the rotation, and even closer Ryan Franklin, allows the opposition to put more balls in play than is typical. Joel Piniero, who would be the third starter in any playoff scenario, gets by on exquisite control (just one per nine innings) and a high groundball rate. Franklin, formerly an unexceptional starter and reliever, leads the NL in saves with 37 and has a 1.67 ERA and it’s deserved — he’s actually done a good job of stranding inherited runners as well as keeping runners off base in the first place. He’s blown three saves all year long. While the bubble could burst at any time, particularly in October, at this point you have to take Franklin seriously. Cards’ defense has been problematic at times, especially at second base, where converted outfielder Skip Schumaker is making a game effort at competence.
No. 6 COLORADO ROCKIES
The Rockies are about average as National League strikeout rates go, in part because Jason Marquis and Aaron Cook drag down the numbers. Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge de la Rosa do get batters to swing and miss. The bullpen has also been solid in the swing-and-miss department. The real problem right now is overall depth, with Cook and Huston Street injured. Both are supposed to be back ere long. One potential equalizer for the Rockies is former starter Franklin Morales who (shades of Phil Hughes) has moved into the pen and has been throwing bullets from the left side. When their park is taken into account, Rockies fielders have been solid if unexceptional. Street has converted 33 of 34 saves and has even held left-handed batters in check, a problem for him in the past.
No. 5 DETROIT TIGERS
The Tigers have allowed the third-fewest runs in the AL, just 4.5 per game. Their strikeout rate is roughly average, with only starter Justin Verlander, who leads the league with 230 strikeouts, really jumping out in that department. The Tigers have been an average to slightly above average fielding club, with few standout performances (Clete Thomas has been strong in right field, though he can’t hit like a right fielder) but no truly poor ones either, and overall they rank in the top half of the AL in turning balls in play into outs. Desperation closer Fernando Rodney has blown only one save all year, but walks too many batters for comfort against strong postseason lineups.
No. 4 BOSTON RED SOX
We begin with Jonathan Papelbon. We continue to the staff overall, which is tied with the Yankees for the league lead in strikeout rate, propelled by Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daniel Bard and Papelbon. We conclude with a defense that has been surprisingly weak. The outfield has been defensively shaky, the infield has lacked a shortstop of any defensive quality until Alex Gonzalez came over, and Kevin Youkilis has had to play too much third base, not to mention a couple of scary games in left field.
No. 2 LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Joe Torre’s guys have perhaps the best defense in the game this year, which is a novel thought for those of us used to watching even Tommy Lasorda’s good teams juggle balls. They lead the NL in turning balls in play into outs, receiving fine defensive performances around the infield (though Orlando Hudson has not been at his best) and from center fielder Matt Kemp. Manny Ramirez is the exception that proves the rule. They are third in the NL in strikeout rate, an advantage that doesn’t wholly disappear when you start adjusting for park effects. Starter Chad Billingsley is whiffing eight per nine innings, lefty Clayton Kershaw 10, and closer Jonathan Broxton 13.6. It should be noted that the rest of the pen is not particularly intent on the strikeout, a possible vulnerability. Broxton has blown five saves in 39 chances, which is shaky by today’s standards.
No. 1 NEW YORK YANKEES
I probably don’t have to give you much detail here. The Yankees are tied for the league lead in strikeout rate, have the most reliable closer in the game, and ra
nk third in the league in turning balls in play into outs. The high rankings in all three categories boosts the Bombers to the top of this list.
None of the foregoing guarantees anything, but it’s a reassuring indicator. Historically, teams with large helpings of these qualities have gone far in October. The Yankees haven’t had all of the elements line up in the same place at the same time in quite a few years. In fact, the last time the Yankees came this close to the top of the Secret Sauce list, the year was 1998.