MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs

The playoffs are all about results. This is the “house style” of this postseason – process doesn’t really matter. Unsustainable production is no match for forever flying flags. Mr. October is not subject to regression.

The St. Louis Cardinals better pray this is true. They defied the Gods of situational hitting all season long, putting up incredible numbers with runners in scoring position. Allen Craig drove this bus, of course, but the Cardinals marched all the way to the World Series without his magic RBI wand.

The Cardinals also have a secret weapon in their bullpen, a man immune to the law of average’s pull. Seth Maness is their escape artist, the Cardinals Houdini. The master of the double play ball when it is needed most.

Only one reliever induced more ground ball double plays than Seth Maness, who coaxed 16 regular season double plays and another huge twin killing in Game Four against the Dodgers in the NLCS. Double plays are something of a speciality of Maness, we can say.

Everything about Maness sets him up to get key grounders. His ground ball rate was second to only Brad Zeigler among qualified relievers. He doesn’t strike out many hitters so the ball is always in play. He predominately throws a two-seam sinker and a change up – pitches that move away from the sweet spot without missing the bat altogether. Maness pounds the bottom of the zone like any good ground ball pitcher should. When he’s up in the zone, he gives up home runs (like any good ground ball pitcher would.)

He isn’t the type of pitcher to blow you away with his peripheral stats but this season he really got the job done. A 2.32 ERA over 62 innings with 20 shutdowns compared to just eight blow ups. By win probability added, he ranks in the top 30 among all relief pitchers, very impressive for a pitcher who most frequently did his work in the seventh inning, with more appearances in the sixth than the eighth. And, because he’s a Cardinal, this is his rookie season, of course.

Like the Cardinals batters, there was something anomalous about Maness’ production in 2013. He was much, much much better with runners on base compared to pitching with the bases empty.

117 36 9 0 3 2 18 .316 .333 .474 .807 54 0 1 0 0 0 1 .355
Men On 132 29 7 0 1 11 17 .248 .313 .333 .646 39 16 0 4 0 7 0 .283
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/22/2013.

11 walks with runners on base but just four were unintentional. Is there any explanation for this phenomenon? No, frankly. And there doesn’t need to be. This isn’t predictive of future performance, it tells the story of Maness’ incredible rookie season as a relief pitcher. But it doesn’t begin to describe the depths of his good fortune.

Often times, situational greatness is explained away as the player “bearing down.” He really concentrates with runners on base, we’re told. It helps him execute, we’re encouraged to understand. Looking at Maness’ pitch fx based results, we can filter his performance through another lens. Maness says himself there isn’t anything mystical about his on base dominance. “I just try and keep it down in the zone and locate.” That seems logical

There is not a worse place to leave a pitch than over the middle of the plate, belt high. Middle/middle, as it is known. According to ESPN Stats & Info, all batters hit .335 with a .582 slugging percentage on middle/middle pitches. Against Seth Maness in that same spot, they put up a .335 average with .481 slugging percentage. Noticeably different but not shocking/change the world type stuff.

But when we look at his middle/middle results with runners on base, a whole new picture emerges. The league’s numbers remain identical but for Maness? .143 average, .143 slugging. Two singles on 38 total pitches thrown to that spot in 2013. Six double plays – on pitches thrown right down the middle! That seems like a lot. Obviously not a skill anyone can expect to continue into the immediate future. But can he pull it off for another week?

In the playoffs there is no sense in second guessing what already worked. But life at Fenway Park, against this Red Sox lineup, is a little bit different. If Seth Maness makes a location mistake against the Red Sox, how likely are they to miss it? Statistically, no more or less likely than any other hitter. But it sure doesn’t seem that way, given the names and heft of the sort of hitters Maness figures to face in the Fall Classic.