Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What Types of Teams Make the Playoffs?

With the Tigers having a sub-par season both offensively and defensively, there has been a lot of talk about what they need to do to get back on track for the playoffs.  I've heard some fans say that the team is built around offense and that is the primary area where they need to improve.  They are currently 9th in the AL in runs scored per game and many feel as if they have the potential to be in the top four in the league.  If they can do that, the offensive-minded fans think they can make the playoffs. 

On the other hand, the Tigers are also 11th in runs allowed per game.  I've read in a few places that fans should not be too concerned about run prevention because the team is built around hitting.  Personally, I did not expect them to be nearly as bad as 11th in the league, especially playing in Comerica Park, which is generally a neutral park offensively.  I also don't think that kind of run prevention is likely to get them into the playoffs no matter how much they hit. 

Anyway, this reminds me of a simple study I published in Beyond Batting Average looking at what kinds of teams are most likely to make the playoffs.  I'm updating that analysis here using a slightly different approach.

I examined the relative importance of offense and defense (pitching/fielding combined) in reaching the playoffs for all major league teams from 1990-2011 (excluding the strike-shortened 1994 season).  I ranked each major league team in every year based on offense (runs scored) and defense (runs allowed).   Then, each team’s offense was categorized as “Good”, “OK” or “Poor” based on their rank.  If a team finished in the top third of the league in runs scored, then it was considered Good.  If it finished in the middle third, then it was placed into the OK group.  Teams in the bottom third were classified as Poor.  Team defense was categorized the same way (Good, OK, Poor) based on runs allowed.  
Crossing the offense classification (Good, OK, Poor) with the defense classification (Good, OK, Poor) yielded nine categories (Good offense and Good defense, OK offense and Good defense, etc) shown in Table 1 below.  For example, the 2008 Brewers were seventh in the National League in runs scored and had the fourth fewest runs allowed, so they went into the OK offense/Good defense category.  
 Table 1: Offense versus Defense in Making the Playoffs, 1990-2011
Offense
Defense
(pitching/fielding)
Teams
Playoffs
%
Good
Good
60
51
85.0
OK
Good
78
41
52.6
Good
OK
70
36
51.4
Bad
Good
44
8
18.2
Good
Bad
52
6
11.5
OK
OK
75
8
10.6
Bad
OK
76
2
2.6
OK
Bad
68
0
0.0
Bad
Bad
87
0
0.0
 The table indicates that there were 60 teams between 1990-2011 which could be categorized as Good offense/Good defenseNot surprisingly, 51 (or 85.0%) of those clubs made the playoffs.  The next most likely types of teams to make the post-season were OK offense/Good defense (52.6%) and Good offense/OK defense (51.4%).  A team in any of the other classifications had less than one in  five chance of making the playoffs.
The data tell us that any team with post-season aspirations needs to be either strong in both offense and defense or strong in one and OK in the other.  With all the traditional talk about the importance of pitching and fielding in winning games , some may be surprised that there does not seem to be an advantage in excelling defensively versus offensively.
On the negative side, if a team is in the bottom third of the league in either offense or defense, they have little chance of making the playoffs, even if they are in the top third in the other phase of the game.  If they are just OK in both offense and defense, they also do not have favorable odds.
Right now, the Tigers would be categorized as OK Offense/Bad Defense.  Based on the above, they will probably have to move up a notch in both areas in order to get into the playoffs.     

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