A few years ago, Nate Silver introduced the idea of the special ingredients that go into a postseason run. Of course, he wasn’t the first analyst to examine what drives postseason success; however, his analysis was exhaustive, data-driven, and interesting. I won’t belabor Silver’s study on the “Secret Sauce” here; instead, I’d like to focus on the implications of his work and what that means for the Reds’ potential postseason chances. [For the jinx police: please note that I was careful to qualify postseason chances as potential.]
For those interested in the Secret Sauce, see any of these articles:
Silver’s most significant finding was that regular season offense performance is irrelevant to postseason success. Here’s what Silver said about why strong offenses really don’t matter in the postseason:
This conclusion may be unsettling to some people. . . Offense is half of the game, and to suggest that it doesn’t correlate with postseason winning is preposterous. However, the postseason is littered with great offensive teams that have had limited postseason success. Recent history provides several examples: the 2006/2007 Yankees (the modern-day Murderer’s Row), the 2005 Red Sox, early 2000s A’s, and mid-90’s Indians. Even the 2001 Mariners (927 runs and 116 wins!) failed to reach their postseason expectations. So be prepared to toss aside the Reds’ league leading offense. If the Reds were to traverse the regular season gauntlet (back off, jinx police), the offense would a big reason why they may make the postseason. For purposes of postseason chances, the offense is largely irrelevant. Sad to say.The reasons are too complicated to get into here, but have to do with what happens when good offenses face good pitching. Pitching does have some tendency to dominate these match-ups, whether they occur in the regular season or in the playoffs. Because "plus pitching" versus "plus hitting" duels occur more frequently in the post-season, we tend to notice the effects more then.
Instead, Silver’s research indicates that three run-prevention attributes—the key elements of the postseason “Secret Sauce”—reflect how well a team performs in postseason:
• A good defense, as measured by Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA).
• A power pitching staff, as measured by normalized strikeout rate.
• A good closer, as measured by WXRL.
Baseball Prospectus tracks these three measures on its stats page. The current results for the Reds paint an overall picture that isn’t pretty: the Reds are 6th, 22st, and 20th respectively in those three categories. Overall, the Reds are 18th in the majors and rank behind the acclaimed Cubs, A’s, Angels, Mets, and Marlins in possessing the ingredients of postseason secret sauce. Most notably, the Reds are *last* among NL challengers and 9th among the 11 MLB contenders. That’s hardly encouraging.
How much can we trust these measures, and how likely are they to change before the end of the year? Most importantly, what can the Reds do to optimize their chance of winning in the postseason?
Clearly, the defense is outstanding. If Rolen and Phillips are healthy, then the Reds can go to the bank knowing that the defense would be a difference maker.
Likewise, Reds fans should be prepared to throw their shoes at the TV (or in the direction of the dugout, if you can get tickets) if Gomes were to start any postseason game in LF. Giving away outs--even in left field--often results in early postseason exits.
The starting pitcher element is trickier. The Reds are lacking a strikeout ace among the rotation candidates. Cincinnati’s starters have survived via rotation depth, great defensive plays, a potent offense, and grinding out innings. Cueto is probably the Reds nominal ace, but his K rates are below his career numbers, and it’s likely he will hit the wall in September. Arroyo is the staff innings-eater, but his K rates are painfully low and his peripherals are scary for someone with a sub-4.00 ERA. Leake reached his wall in June. Harang hasn’t pitched in months and may have reached the end of his rope. Wood has been the team’s best pitcher for the past month or so (San Fran start notwithstanding), but he’s a rookie. And he has only pitched one game in Cincinnati, which warrants mentioning with the significant home/road splits for nearly everyone in the rotation. Bailey and Volquez have both shown some promising signs and provided mixed results; both pitchers are coming off injuries too. In total, this rotation doesn’t paint a pretty picture for October success. Not good at all.
The wild card in this scenario is that we've learned how difficult it is for the staff to pitch in the GABP during the dog days of July-August. But don't know how the stadium will play in October games at night. Consequently, the threat of the easy taters may be lessened in the postseason, and strikeouts may be easier to come by. Who knows?
My position is that the Reds should roll the dice with those pitchers most likely to pitch an outstanding October baseball game, even at the risk of embarrassing the club with a bad performance. Go big or go home. I think the front three should include Cueto, Bailey, and Volquez. All three have thrown in a few stinkers in the past week. . . Nevertheless, they have the best “stuff” and would be the most likely candidates to dominate on any given night. Arroyo should start a game 4, if the Reds need a fourth starter. It will be hard to pass up the veterans (Arroyo and Harang) for a postseason rotation slot, but I think it’s the best shot the Reds would have of advancing in the postseason.
You probably don’t need me to remind everyone that Cordero hasn’t had a good year. To his credit, he has looked much better in his past 6-7 games. Let’s hope he’s made the appropriate adjustments and is turning the corner.
If not, then the Reds need to get creative with the bullpen. It’s interesting that Silver’s research suggests the rest of the bullpen doesn’t matter as much as the closer, but that’s probably a function of how closers are used in the postseason (Mariano Rivera as the archetype) rather than a reflection of the importance of middle relievers. It's doubtful that Dusty use the Reds best relievers (i.e., Massett and Rhodes) in the same way that the Yankees have used Rivera. A reasonably good approach might be to employ a short leash with the starters and bring in Masset and Rhodes to snuff out the high-leverage situations. Perhaps Chapman can also fill a similar role when he is called up, but relying on a rookie with a month of big league experience might be too much.