Maybe it’s because I have watched Nick Swisher limp through the playoffs since he’s come to the Yankees, but for the last few seasons I have had a theory. That theory is that there is a reason that the Yankees have struggled in the playoffs recently (with the exception of 2009 obviously). The reason is because of the front office’s philosophy of emphasizing patience, sometimes at the expense of average. The strategy is working the pitcher and getting on base. Batting average often takes a back seat to OBP on the Yankees. This approach has worked very well for the team in the regular season. The question is why do the Yankees appear to struggle to score runs in the post season?
The theory makes sense. These high OBP low batting average players, like Swisher, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixera, and to a lesser extent Brett Gardner are patient batters who take strikes and go deep into counts. When challenged, they do not hit for a high average. Naturally when they face better pitching in the playoffs who will challenge them with good stuff and command of the strike zone, their numbers will suffer right? Well, as it turns out my theory was wrong. These players actually get better during the playoffs.
I looked at the statistics of active players with the top 100 career on base percentages, and found the ones that had anything below a .275 batting average. Of the top 100, there were 29 players who qualified.
The real focus of this article is how these 29 players compare to the rest of the league in terms of playoff batting average and on base percentage. Of these 29 players, four of them had never played in the playoffs. Two of the players had less than 25 at bats, so they were discounted. I compared the other 23 players to the rest of the league. The mean major league batting average/on base percentage for the 2011 season was .255/.321. Come playoff time, that split changed to .251/.318. There was not a significant decline in production for the average player from the regular season to the playoffs, however there was a slight .004 decrease in BA, and an even smaller .003 decrease in OBP.
Now, onto the 23 players I looked at. I looked at their career playoff numbers compared to their career average and on base percentage. These players actually had a .004 increase on average in their batting averages during the playoffs, which for most of them was already above major league average. They also had a .008 increase on average in their on base percentage.
As it turns out, patience is a virtue, even against the best pitchers in the league. It is always good to work the count on pitchers, and nothing about facing a better pitcher changes that. These are players that you want on your team in the playoffs. There’s no questioning that these guys are productive during the regular season, and as it turns out they are even more productive in the playoffs. Once again the Yankees front office proves that they are ahead of the game in statistical analysis; either that or they are just lucky to be on the right side of statistics in this instance.
Patience, waiting for the right pitch, and taking pitches is a good strategy against playoff caliber pitching. This is not a novel concept, but it pounces on my previous theory. People have predicted Brett Gardner will fail for a long time. They have said that as soon as pitchers realize he’s not going to hit for any type of power, they will go after him and his OBP will go down. This has yet to happen though.
It seems that at every turn of the corner, the on base percentage movement gains steam. Players are being judged more by their patience and on base percentage, and there are a lot of good reasons for that. This is not to say that average means nothing. I think most people would rather see a player hit the ball and have a high on base percentage, and that is something that should never change.
There are many benefits to taking the patient approach. The pitcher is forced to throw more pitches, and this makes for shorter outings. The batter gets on base more so there are more “ducks on the pond” when their teammates come to bat. The hitter sees more pitches, and thus is more likely to get a good pitch to hit.
The sample size isn’t tiny, but it admittedly isn’t huge either. While evidence exists to say that these players are the type you want in the playoffs, it is still questionable whether this trend will stand the test of time. For now we can commend the Yankees on going after players that will get on base and be productive. Despite Swisher’s struggles in the playoffs, it appears this is the correct strategy. The statistical gods have spoken, and baseball reference has once again provided an answer to a question that has been irking me lately.