The statistical secret to MLB playoffs 

October, 12, 2010

Today's winner in Stats & Analytics:

Chase Blackburn, Phil Hughes, Phillies

Today's losers:

Ty Cobb, Giants, situational stats

Pick a player, any player, who is on a team that's still alive in the MLB playoffs -- Carl Crawford, Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard, whoever. Now, tell me this: Did you care how he was doing on April 7, four days into this season?

Okay, you may have cared, because he was playing in games that counted. But did you think his performance in those first few days really meant anything? Of course not. It's like asking whether you'd be concerned if I told you your favorite player hit just .231 on the second Wednesday of every month. Tiny sample sizes just aren't meaningful or predictive.

Yet here we are in the postseason, subject again to a barrage of "statistics" whose sample sizes are microscopic. I have very much enjoyed TBS' coverage of the playoffs, but the fact that Denard Span went 2 for 9 in the first two games of the Twins' series against the Yankees told us nothing about how he would do in Game 3, and shouldn't be a stat that got shown and re-shown on national television. And that's just one offense of many that rain down upon us at this time of year. Statisticians have just a handful of teams and games left to focus on, so they slice and dice their metrics to an absurdly situational level. And newspapers, play-by-play men and talking heads serve them up. One blog intoned that Evan Longoria "was batting .083" (that would be 1 for 12) heading into Game 4 of the Rangers-Rays series (when he promptly slammed a homer and two doubles).

Why do fans gobble up these insignificant numbers? Well, we need something to support our arguments! And too many people really don't appreciate sample size. But there's a deeper reason: Fans, media types and players all tend to believe the postseason is a different animal from regular baseball, with attention and pressures that only certain special players can withstand. If I had a dime for every time I heard before Game 3 of the Yankees-Twins series that "we" had "no idea" how Phil Hughes would "respond" to making his first postseason start, my daughters' college savings accounts would be fully funded.