Platitudes and Tautologies in Post-Season Baseball

With eight teams still left in the playoffs, baseball's biggest post-season battle, the one between platitude and tautologies, can begin. For years, platitudes, untestable cliches aimed at making the speaker and audience feel good, have been the most popular way to explain who wins the World Series. The winning team is invariably described as having good chemistry and wanting it more. Similarly, no matter how many home runs are hit, there is always a consensus that pitching and defense are what matter in the post-season.

The advantage of platitudes is that they do not have to be accurate, as they are generally untestable. Asserting the winning team has good chemistry might be true or it might not be. A fight in the locker room, for example, can be attributed to bad chemistry if the team goes on to lose, or just the right thing to motivate the team if they go on to win. The team that wins the World Series will likely have the right mix of veterans and young players because all teams have a mix of these types of players. David Ortiz, Tori Hunter, Brian Wilson, Bartolo Colon, AJ Burnett and Carlos Beltran and several others on post-season rosters are all capable of providing veteran leadership and will likely be credited with doing just that if their team wins.

Tautologies have become more influential as the post-season has expanded. These are statements that are true, and perhaps even provable, but have no real meaning because they are redundant, frequently simply reformulating the obvious. Not surprisingly, these tautologies have no predictive power either. Tautologies that are used to explain who wins in the post-season include assertions that the team that gets hot at the right time wins or the team that has a shutdown bullpen, or the most dominating two starting pitchers will win.

These are tautologies because, for example, teams whose bullpens do not pitch well, get eliminated. Because these explanations are offered after the fact, they are always right, but usually meaningless. The team with the best bullpen probably will win the World Series, but right now we do not know who that might be. Similarly, the team with the two top starting pitchers may well win the World Series, but that will be determined by their performance in the post-season. For example, with Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw the Dodgers have the top two starting pitchers of any team in the NL. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer may be in a similar position in the AL, but if the A's win it will be because two of their starters pitched very well in the post-season, so the explanation can apply to them as well.

Last year in the post-season, a big part of the reason the Giants won the World Series was because two of their pitchers, Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong, combined to pitch 42.2 innings while giving up only six earned runs, winning several big games along the way. They were the dominant starters the Giants needed to win, but they were hardly the two best starters going into the post-season. Few teams win the World Series without at least two starting pitchers getting hot at the right time. Last year it was Zito and Vogelsong, but that is an observation, not an explanation.

By the time the post-season arrives, the only teams left all have bullpens that, with a few breaks, can shutdown the opposition for 15-20 games, two starters that can emerge as dominant and offenses that can get hot. Those that do not have these things, don't make it out of the first round. Therefore these explanations always make sense. I don't know who will win the World Series this year, but I know that their bullpen will have pitched pretty well over the course of the post-season. Teams whose bullpens blow a few leads in the post-season rarely win it all.

Platitudes and tautologies help baseball's appeal. The former makes it easier to formulate a good storyline for every possible outcome, contributing to the broader narrative arc of baseball in both current and historical context. The latter makes it possible for fans and commentators to feel more expert without having to get their hands too dirty in data. Baseball is a business and a form of entertainment that is well served by this. However, more powerful explanatory variables such as the impact of luck on post-season outcomes, are less useful for baseball. Noting that a team won because it got lucky, and that this is what happens most years when relatively well matched teams play each other in short post-season series or one game playoffs, leads to a very different narrative about baseball. This narrative, that luck is of paramount import, is less appealing for fans and baseball people, so instead we will be told in early November that the winners "made their own luck," and that they "took advantage of the breaks they got." One platitude and one tautology, so maybe this post-season battle will end in a tie.