An idyllic September beckoned. With a fat division lead and a remaining schedule that was a veritable Loiterers’ Row, the Atlanta Braves could rest the guys who’d labored long and deploy those who needed work, and come October the whole team would be fine-tuned to a fare-thee-well.
Reality hasn’t cooperated. The Braves have lost seven of 11 games and managed only five runs in a weekend series against San Diego. Dan Uggla has been benched. B.J. Upton still isn’t hitting. Jason Heyward, lost to a broken jaw in late August, has only started to take batting practice.
As to what effect this might have, we consulted men of divergent backgrounds. Bobby Cox, who retired as Braves manager in 2010, took 16 teams to the playoffs. Ben Lindbergh is the editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, a signature sabermetric website. We asked: Are the Braves prepared for October and is there really a way to prepare for October?
Cox: “You’re not going change a lot going into it. You try to get ready. You try to get all your ducks in a row and your pitching in line. … (But) it is what it is.”
Lindbergh: “At BP, we used to offer something called the Secret Sauce that (renowned stat guy) Nate Silver developed to predict postseason success. It assessed certain criteria — staff strikeout rate, quality of closer, team defense — to determine whether a club had an edge in the playoffs. But we abandoned the Secret Sauce a few years ago, because … the formula didn’t prove predictive after (Silver) published it. Basically, we’ve found the most predictive factor to be regular-season record, or some other measure of underlying team strength (run differential, for instance). Even that isn’t all that predictive, thanks to the small samples of postseason series, but it seems to be the best we can do.”
Cox: “You’re really not going to get anybody well. The guys who are hurt aren’t going to be back — except Jason and we need him. He’s the one who really got us going (in late July).”
Essentially a team must play the hand it’s dealt — here we mix gambling metaphors — in a postseason that baseball men invariably describe as a crap shoot. Since 1995, more wild cards (four) have won the World Series than teams that managed the best overall record (three). And the notion of playoff-bound “momentum” as a necessity isn’t supported by facts.
Lindbergh pointed to Baseball Prospectus research done by Jay Jaffe, who wrote in October 2009: “The oft-cited example (of momentum) remains the 2007 Rockies, who won 13 of their final 14 regularly scheduled games, then a play-in, and ultimately the NL pennant. … The question obviously arises as to whether there’s truth to such conventional wisdom about whether late-season performance carries over into the playoffs. The answer is a fairly resounding no.”
Two years later, Jaffe examined the 10 worst Septembers of playoff-bound teams during the wild card era. His finding: “The 10 teams won a combined 16 postseason series, with six of them reaching the World Series and three of them winning it all.”
Local angle: The 1993 Braves were 22-8 after Aug. 31, winning the NL West on the season’s final day; the 1995 Braves were 16-12 after Aug. 31, winning the NL East by 21 games. The hot Braves of ‘93 didn’t win a playoff round; the not-as-hot Braves of ‘95 won three, beating Cleveland in the World Series.
Lindbergh: “If a good team is healthy but happens to have a subpar September, I wouldn’t read much into it. But teams’ true talent levels certainly change as seasons go on and players develop, get hurt and get healthy. If the Braves don’t have Heyward, they’re not as strong a team as they would be with him, and the performance they put up when they had Heyward might not be completely reflective of their true talent now.”
Cox: “It’s all going to come down to starting pitching doing their job, and they’ve done it all year long — and that’s after losing two aces in (Tim) Hudson and (Brandon) Beachy. … It’s just amazing what Fredi (Gonzalez, the manager) and the coaches have done.”
Would Cox be comfortable with Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen as his playoff rotation? “They’re all young and they’re all good. They’ve learned a lot from Roger (McDowell, the pitching coach). I feel pretty good with those three.”
That’s from the old-school side of the aisle. What does the sabermetric set foresee?
Lindbergh: “Our playoff odds report still gives (the Braves) the best chance any NL team has of winning a World Series.”