This past postseason was fun, wasn’t it? Besides the Cubs not being involved in the World Series, I had a blast watching two offensive juggernauts battle it out. Neither team seems to ever be “out of it.” And that’s pretty neat from my seat as a fan.
But one thing that seemed to be a very glaring contrast between the Dodgers and Astros was their bullpen. How can two teams with two very different bullpen constructions go toe-to-toe like the Astros and Dodgers did? What happened to the mantra that the team with the best bullpen wins? Is that still a thing? Or was ever that simple? Could it be simply how you use your staff? Will I ever stop asking questions?
In Game 2 of this year’s World Series, Dave Roberts was criticized for relying too much on the analytical side of the game after pulling Rich Hill after just four innings. The reason? Sabermetrics had been telling him (all year, not just the playoffs) that the more times a batting line-up cycles, the chances for a big offensive inning increases. The solution is to stack your bullpen, not just by playing matchups, but by playing your best guy in the most crucial times. Game 2, however, didn’t follow the script that Roberts had relied on throughout most of the postseason, as the Dodgers fell in extras. The talk after the game? Rich Hill was pulled too early after only going 4.0 IP and striking out seven.
Let’s even look before the World Series at our own beloved Joe Maddon. In Game 2 of the NLCS, Maddon opted to forgo using closer Wade Davis in in the bottom half of the 9th inning of a tie ballgame. Instead he called for John Lackey out of the pen in order to, in his words, “preserve Davis for the save in the next inning.” After walking his first batter, Lackey gave up the walk-off homerun to Justin Turner which put the Cubs down 0-2 in the eventual NLCS loss to the Dodgers. The “traditional” approach didn’t pay-off here.
When you tinker, sometimes you lose. When you don’t tinker, sometimes you lose. But the flip side is that if you do both of things, sometimes you also win. So what does all that mean? Is there a way to predict effectively?
I don’t know. But I do know that the bullpen is one of the most fickle thing in professional sports (i.e. it's a freaking crapshoot sometimes). Sure, teams have data on different situations, players, stadiums, etc. But shouldn't, at the very least, we be able to say whoever has the best bullpen in the regular season go on to be successful in the postseason?
And with that, I share this chart:
First, let me preface this by saying that (according to my baseball friends that are much smarter than me), FIP isn't perfect--not even close. But I still find it better than ERA (it's also little easier to understand than some other pitching stats available).
Okay, now onto what I found. I came into this exercise expecting to see that the team who lead the league in FIP would go onto at least be in the mix for the Championship Series, if not the World Series, most of the time. And the playoffs would be an almost certainty. But that wasn't the case.
Instead, in the past 20 years, we can see that the team that has the best regular season FIP for relievers:
- Made the playoffs 55% of the time
- Made the championship series 20% of the time
- Made the World Series twice
- Won the World Series never
Whoa. Did not see that coming. Does this mean that bullpens don't matter? Nah, nothing is ever that white and black. But it's super interesting. The data for teams that did win the World Series is equally as surprising.
Over the past 20 years, teams that won the World Series:
- Were top 10 in regular season reliever FIP 9 times
- Were top 5 in regular season reliever FIP 3 times
I just can't seem to wrap my head around this. Sure, this is a very VERY broad scope that I'm looking at here. But it's still surprising as heck, isn't it? Maybe it isn't just about the bullpen. Maybe, just maybe, it's about your team as whole (Captain Obvious alert).
I guess we can just ask the 2017 Indians about that.