Baseball is a game of process. The season is long and the variables many so good process is a must. Process means different things to different people, and “processes” differ from club to club – as do expectations.
When the kind of people who watch baseball in bulk observe regular season games, they tend to key on certain things. Harbingers of goodness to come, let’s say. Swinging strikes for pitchers, batters turning in good at bats. They are hints are future success, the building blocks for fans to dream on. The difference between “tools” and “skills” for developing players.
In the playoffs, there is no time for future success. There is no room for predictive stats. There is no regression and no space for the application of value-based stats. Wins Above Replacement works on a macro scale. The playoffs are the most minute of the micro. They are the here and the now. The playoffs are about results. The tired old Al Davis quote “Just win, baby” applies. Just win.
The sense of urgency which pervades the entire playoff schedule is especially present during the new Wild Card play-in format. In no other sport do the rounds of playoffs begin with two Game Sevens. But that was exactly the feel of last year’s WC games, and I’m sure the same will hold true tonight. Last night’s tiebreaker game felt that way, even if it isn’t technically the playoffs.
— Jamey Newberg (@NewbergReport) October 1, 2013
This tweet was sent in about the sixth inning of last night’s game. A fair point but, ultimately, a moot one for multiple reasons. It didn’t matter because David Price stayed strong, lasting nine glorious innings and sending his team to their next hurdle. Secondly, it is a non-issue because David Price allowed one run while Martin Perez gave up three. The end.
It doesn’t really matter who pitched better or how they go there. Perez’s team was losing. Again: results time. Not process time. Miss more bats or throw more strikes? Yeah, that’s what pitching better looks like. But silver linings are pablum for the losers. The playoffs are the time when “True Talent” goes out the window. Only the wins matter. In a best of five or seven, nobody cares how you win your games. You hope your team wins four games out of seven.
It isn’t to say all caution is thrown to the wind as baseball managers turn to runes and ritual sacrifice in the absence of reason to when making post-season decisions. Players must still be put into the best position to succeed. Managers still must fill out their lineup card to the best of their ability and play matchups as they would at any time during the year. They send their big guns to war, if such an unseemly metaphor could fit in here.
Joe Maddon likes to use Rodriguez against left-handed pitching, and promptly removed the former shortstop as soon as a righty entered the game. Still, Sean Rodriguez stood out as the kind of player who didn’t necessarily belong on the field in a game of this magnitude. You need players like Sean Rodriquez to survive and thrive over 162 games, you don’t count on them typically to win you game 163.
The regular season is about insulating yourself against failure. It is the long game, where you hope the odds even out in the favor.
The playoffs are different. There is no time for sample sizes to normalize or any of the (generally bunk) mathematical theories bandied about to come true. You put your best nine out there and you hope. You hope your guys hit better than their guys. You hope your guys pitch better than their guys. You hope the bounces and calls go your way.
The best team doesn’t get to celebrate on the mound or spray champagne in the clubhouse, the winner does that. Doesn’t make it right and it isn’t always fair. But it is this way. It makes the playoffs fun and unpredictable and a delightful antidote to the persistent grind of the regular season. It isn’t as much a battle of attrition, designed to separate the great from the good, as a crapshoot. A dose of adrenalin to a sport wherein a common performance enhancing drug makes you better at paying attention.
The playoffs are amazing and stark is the difference between the regular season and October baseball. It changes everything even though, on the surface, everything is the same. The game is the same, the stakes are different. The rising stakes change the way we must think about the game.
This shift is most notable tonight and tomorrow, the pseudo-Game Seven atmosphere of “win and you’re in” proposition. The Pirates will scour their scouting reports and develop game plans at the plate and Francisco Liriano will work with Russell Martin to figure out the best way to pitch Joey Votto, but the one game construct casts aside these best laid plans in its very nature. The Reds might have a better team, the slight edge in quality that might manifest over five or seven games. But to win one game, tonight? Any edge is negligible. It’s one game!
The Pirates season hinges on how Francisco Liriano feels about his change up coming out of his bullpen or how well Johnny Cueto commands his fastball. Not as part of a greater trend. It matters how they pitch tonight. Tonight. That’s it. One game. So simple. Just win tonight. Enjoy the games!