Post-season baseball is in full swing. The Dodgers looked like a juggernaut this season, but have run in to a roadblock with an exciting young Braves team taking a 2-0 series lead. In the American League, the Astros snuck into the expanded playoffs despite finishing near .500, but their run may be coming to an end after dropping the first three games in the American League Championship Series against the top seeded Rays.
It has been five years since the Royals last made the playoffs, and they would love to get back to playing October baseball. The game has changed a bit since they won a title in 2015, so what lessons can they learn from this year’s crop of contenders?
Home runs are a big deal
The Royals won a pennant in 2014 despite finishing dead last in baseball in home runs with just 95. Three teams exceeded that number in just 60 games this year, including the two teams in the NLCS, the Braves and Dodgers. The top eight teams in home runs this year all made the playoffs.
And once you reach the post-season, dingers are even more important. Teams that have out-homered their opponent this post-season are 24-2. This may seem obvious, but there has been an old adage in baseball that home runs are less important in the post-season because hitters face elite pitchers more often, putting a premium on runs and a preference towards small ball. Yet Mike Petriello shows that over several decades now, teams that out-homer their opponents in the post-season win at a higher rate than they do in the regular season.
What does that mean for small ball? The Rays went the entire season without a sacrifice hit. There have been just 25 stolen bases by all teams this post-season in 38 games - the Royals stole 14 bases by themselves in each of their runs in 2014 and 2015. Small ball is about as fashionable as disco music and the pet rock (kids, ask your parents).
It likely still helps to be able to do the “little things” when necessary - the Rays put down a surprise bunt in Game 3 of their series against the Astros. But like it or not, home runs have just become a bigger part of the game. When the Royals won it in 2015, home runs constituted 37 percent of all runs scored that year, 42 percent of post-season runs. This year, home runs constituted 44 percent of regular season runs scored, and have been responsible for over half of all runs scored this post-season. To win a championship, you need some big bats.
You can never have enough pitching
The Royals have a crop of good young pitching prospects coming up and while it may be tempting to think some of those arms could be dealt for much-needed hitting, this post-season has shown how much pitching depth really matters. The Yankees have some mashers in their lineup, but were hit hard by injuries to their pitching staff, causing them to try an opener in the post-season, a decision that drew criticism when it didn’t work out. Meanwhile, the Astros also suffered injuries to one of their top starters (Justin Verlander) and closer (Roberto Osuna) and plugged in young arms like Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, and Enoli Paredes, who have stepped up to the challenge. The Rays have had a wave of hard-throwing arms to throw at opponents, and led the Majors this year in most pitchers used with at least 25 innings pitched this year with 11. The Braves had issues with their rotation this year, but had such a deep bullpen that finished second in baseball in innings pitched, that it didn’t matter. Pitchers get hurt, it’s a fact of life, which is why top teams stockpile as many good arms as they can.
Defense still matters
As analytics has veered the game towards more “three true outcomes”, you might think defense matters less. But post-season games are so close, and converting outs is still a big deal, as evidenced by the Astros/Rays series so far. The Astros ranked as one of the worst teams in Defensive Runs Above Average, according to Fangraphs, while the Rays ranked as the best, a problem compounded by Jose Altuve’s October defensive slump.
The Dodgers can flash some leather too, with the second-most Defensive Runs Saved this year, the second-most Range Runs, and the second-lowest batting average on balls in play (BABIP). They also shifted more than any other team, doing so 55 percent of the time (the Braves, meanwhile, shifted the least!). The Braves have succeeded despite having one of the lowest-ranked defenses, and they could take even more of a hit now that one of their top fielders, Adam Duvall, is out. But the Royals know how important defense is, and despite an emphasis on home runs, it still helps to catch the ball.
Big free agents are not necessary
Of the four teams remaining in the post-season, the biggest free agent contracts of any of the four teams were the deals the Dodgers gave to Kenley Jansen (5 years, $80 million) and Justin Turner (4 years, $64 million) to stay in LA. The biggest free agent deal to a new player by any LCS team is A.J. Pollock’s four-year, $55 million deal with the Dodgers. Most of the free agent deals signed by the four remaining teams are very short-term one- and two-year deals - Marcell Ozuna, Travis d’Arnaud, Charlie Morton, Michael Brantley, and Blake Treinen.
That’s not to say teams haven’t fielded large payrolls - the Dodgers had the second-highest payroll, and the Astros were fifth. But much of those salaries were spent on long-term contracts to keep players. And if they did take on a big contract, it was typically via trade - the Dodgers acquired Mookie Betts, the Astros acquired Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, and the Braves acquired Mark Melancon. Those kind of trades may cost valuable prospects, but it also allows a team to acquire a player while he is still in his prime. This post-season shows the Royals need to invest in players, but that doesn’t mean they should necessarily be big players in free agency.
Don’t be afraid to trade away good young players
The Rays won 90+ games in each of the last two seasons, but rather than be complacent about their young roster, they instead went out and tried to upgrade at key positions. But as a team unwilling to spend much on free agents, they had to engineer upgrades through trades, and to get young talent they had to give up young talent.
Among the players the Rays have given up - Tommy Pham, Jake Bauers, Nick Solak, Chris Archer, Emilio Pagan, Ryne Stanek, National League Rookie of the Year favorite Jake Cronenworth, top 100 pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore, and top 100 outfield prospect Jesus Sanchez.
What people seem to conveniently forget is that the Rays paid up to get Their Guys.— Michael Bradburn (@MWBII) October 12, 2020
Matthew Liberatore, a top-100 prospect, was traded to get Randy Arozarena.
Jesus Sanchez, another top-100 guy, traded for Nick Anderson.
While it may be the big trades that get the most attention, finding diamonds in other organizations is key to fielding a team deep enough to make a post-season run. The Peter Fairbanks-for-Nick Solak deal was a swap of young players that didn’t make headlines at the time, but Fairbanks has emerged as a fire-throwing reliever for the Rays. Ji-Man Choi, Joey Wendle, and Ryan Yarbrough are just some of the other players the Rays acquired from other organizations in minor swaps of young players. The Rays don’t get wedded to players, they look for the best talent they can find. And finding diamonds in the rough comes down to good scouting and great player evaluation.