It’s harder to make the playoffs than make the World Series once you’re in the playoffs.
This is not an intuitive statement to be taken at face value. After all, five teams make the playoffs from each league—only one of those five make the World Series. If playoff teams were chosen randomly, a given team would have a 33% of making the playoffs and a 20% to win the league after that. There are two ways of supporting this non-intuitive statement.
1. The playoffs represent a tiny sample size when compared to the regular season
2. If you’re constructing a team, your job is done by playoff time.
About the first statement: The baseball regular season is a marathon consisting of 162 games. The maximum number of games a team can play in the playoffs is 20. Because the postseason is so short relative to the regular season, not all the statistical outliers that develop during the playoffs have time to regress back to the mean as they would be expected to during the long regular season. The easiest way to think about this idea is to think about the last several postseasons; Pablo Sandoval’s World Series performance last year—David Freese’s the year before. The league’s "best" (an interesting concept to explore itself) team does not necessarily have a significantly better chance of the winning the World Series than any of the other playoff teams. That doesn’t mean facing Yu Darvish in a one game playoff is the same as facing Chris Tillman; some teams are better than others. The small sample size "pushes" teams together. Over the course of 30 starts Yu Darvish will outpitch Chris Tillman. On any given night however, Tillman could (although it could happen, it remains more unlikely than likely) outpitch Darvish.
Constructing a winning baseball team is nearly a yearlong process. GMs sign free agents and make trades over the winter and managers select twenty-five major league players after spring training. The draft occurs in June and following that there are two in-season trade deadlines. Once the calendar turns to September however, the GM (of a contending team) finds his job as it pertains to the current season essentially over. Rosters expand from twenty-five to 40 during the month of September. Losing teams fill the extra spots with prospects while winning teams add players that are expected to contribute. The Reds, for example, called up Billy Hamilton simply for his base running ability. There is a spot for him because the rosters are larger and he has a specific skill set to fill a need. This season, Andrew Friedman has consciously been building a team to compete in September and make the playoffs.
It seems obvious that a GM would build a team to make the playoffs. After all, what would his job be otherwise? Ever since Andrew Friedman has been running the organization, he has looked for every possible edge over the competition, no matter how slight it may seem. His acquisition of David DeJesus and Delmon Young are excellent examples of the Rays looking for new advantages. The Rays have never been big players at the trade deadline, their largest acquisition probably being Ben Zobrist. This season, the Rays traded for Jesse Crain at the non-waiver trade deadline and DeJesus after the deadline. They also signed Delmon Young, who was released by the Philies.
The Rays have a good number of position players that have sizable lefty/righty splits.
|Hitter||OPS vs. LHP||OPS vs. RHP||tOPS+ vs. LHP||tOPS+ vs. RHP|
Basically all position players show a platoon split to an extent. Evan Longoria and Yunel Escobar are both superior when batting against lefties as opposed to righties. They don't belong on this chart because they play basically everyday. Luke Scott's numbers this season are relatively fluky. For his career he is much better against RHP than LHP.
|Luke Scott*||BA vs. RHP||BA vs. LHP||BABIP vs. RHP||BABIP vs. LHP||tOPS+ vs RHP||tOPS+ vs LHP|
The extra roster space during September allows the Rays to keep all of the platoon players that Joe Maddon wants on the active roster. Maddon is well known for changing his lineup every night, having all of these hitters at his disposal allows him to custom build his lineup to face every pitcher that the Rays face. The following table shows how frequently Rays hitters have faced opposite handed pitching. Longoria, Wil Myers, and Escobar are on the table to provide a reference point for the other hitters (everyday players vs. platoon players).
|Hitter||Handedness||% Of ABs with advantage|
The addition of David DeJesus gives Maddon much more flexibility in constructing his lineups and allows batters to face only the pitchers that they are best at hitting. Since he has joined the Rays, DeJesus has platooned with Desmond Jennings. Complimentary hitters now litter the roster: Luke Scott and Delmon Young, Kelly Johnson and Ryan Roberts (currently playing in Durham's playoffs), and Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez. These players bat opposite of each other and play similar positions in the field, allowing for Joe Maddon to maximize every lineup's potential. Once the game starts and opposing relievers enter the game, Maddon will begin to empty the bench and continue to play matchups.
One area that the depth, versatility and size of the roster will help is with the catchers. The expanded benches will enable Maddon to pinch hit for Jose Molina later in games and force favorable matchups. The size of the roster also allows Maddon to place the DH in the field, a move that removes the DH from the lineup and inserts the pitcher. Normally this would be a ricky proposition in the AL but with such a long bench, hitters can pinch hit for the pitchers for an entire game.
The box score from Sunday's win over the Mariners looks like a NL game gone wild. Fifteen position players played for the Rays. The ability to manage a game that effectively is something that Friedman and Maddon have been building this season. Five pinch hitters entered the game and went 2-4 with a walk and a double. One pinch runner was used, resulting in a run scored. Six players either changed positions or entered as a substitute and played in the field. The eighth inning of Sunday's game illustrates why the Rays love the depth they've accumulated for the stretch run. During the top of the inning, the Rays used two pinch hitters and a pinch runner. The bottom of the inning saw Maddon make five defensive changes.
For years the Rays have valued versatility in their players. Ben Zobrist, Sean Rodriguez, Ryan Roberts and Kelly Johnson are all capable of playing in the infield and outfield. The key addition though for the Rays this fall has been David DeJesus. His presence allows for much more creative use of the other players that the Rays have. Andrew Friedman has obviously decided to build to win September. With the Rays involved in a tight playoff race, David DeJesus could end up helping decide the Rays' playoff fate. If he does, he could end up being the biggest in season pickup in Rays' history.