Bullpens Have Been The Key In This Year's MLB Playoffs

A common media theme in reaction to the early results of the MLB playoffs have been that “there’s no predicting these playoffs.” The fact betting-line underdogs won all four Division Series matchups, and a couple of individual pitching matchups went badly awry is cited as the latest proof that in baseball, a short series, is all about randomness and luck. I disagree completely.

There are is one overriding theme that draws all the disparate results together, and another subplot that is also in play. The common theme is very simple—the team with the superior bullpen won every single Division Series.
Both Los Angeles teams, the Dodgers and Angels, had flawed bullpens—the closers were good, albeit not great, but it was anybody’s guess what would happen in the bridge area between the starter and the closer. As far as Detroit goes, not even the most diehard Tiger fans were under any illusion—the bullpen was just bad from top to bottom. Washington’s bullpen wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as good as San Francisco’s, and the Nationals did replace their closer in September—not exactly a sign of stability.
BaseballTherefore, you have three teams—the Orioles, Royals and Cardinals—all advancing because of bullpens that not only performed better in the Division Series, but were reasonably expected to do so beforehand. Is that really a display of wild unpredictability? Or just too much analysis, along with betting lines, not focusing on the importance of middle and setup relief?
The differences between the Nats and Giants’ relief pitching wasn’t quite as stark, but these teams were complete polar opposites in another important area—championship toughness. San Francisco is battle-tested. Washington is not. The Giants repeatedly executed better, while the Nationals seemed to have a glass jaw, most notably a wild pitch scoring the winning run of the clinching Game 4.
A similar dynamic was very much in play in the Cardinals’ victory over the Dodgers. And while the Orioles don’t have a battle-tested quality to them, the Tigers do have a reputation for doing something to mess themselves up at crucial times.
Sure enough, Detroit foolishly tried to send Miguel Cabrera home in Game 2 and he was out by a mile. The only series that the championship toughness issue wasn’t a factor for at least one team was Royals-Angels.
It’s important to emphasize that these are factors that were known in advance. I’m not “handicapping in reverse” when I point it out after the fact. Again, are the playoffs really a crazy, unpredictable crapshoot? Or do we just need to change the issues we look at when predicting.

I don’t mean to come off like I had all these series in advance. I did have the Orioles and Cardinals winning. And I gave serious thought to picking the Giants on the very “toughness” issue, but in the end was persuaded away by the Nats’ superior talent. I also thought the Royals had a legitimate chance, though I have no regrets about picking the Angels. But there was nothing in the big picture—save maybe the fact the Angels didn’t win a single game—that left me completely shocked.
Sure, it was more than a little surprising to see a Clayton Kershaw-Adam Wainwright duel end up a 10-9 slugfest. Or the A’s lose the AL wild-card game after having a 7-3 lead and Jon Lester on the mound. But individual games being surprises is entirely different than saying the entire postseason has spun off its axis.
What’s going on right now is a whole lot of excuse-making. The media does not want to simply admit they focused on the wrong things when crafting the pre-series storylines. I’m not saying that the team with the better bullpen will always win every postseason series. Nor am I saying that an untested team can’t prove its mettle against a worthy championship foe. I am saying these things should be factors in the pre-series analysis, and if they aren’t, the results won’t be seen as wildly unforeseeable.
Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane once famously said “the playoffs are a crapshoot.” That’s a cop-out. Sure, an underdog has more of a chance in a short series than over a 162-game whole, but if they’re a crapshoot, why do Beane’s teams lose every single time. In a crapshoot, wouldn’t they win about half the time, when the coin landed in their favor? I don’t mean to pick up Beane the GM, as it’s not fair to ascribe all these October failings to him personally. But I do mean to pick on Beane the analyst, who is making a convenient excuse.
No sport is ever truly “predictable” in the sense that we can know the outcome. If it were, we could all go bet for a living, but none of us would have any fun watching. But it does an injustice to the winners to suggest their victories were nothing more than winning what amounts to a random coin flip.