How the playoffs consistently confound baseball's statheads

In the end, baseball is about much more than output measured over long stretches of time

The Chicago Cubs celebrate their Wild Card win.
(Image credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

"My sh-t doesn't work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is f-cking luck."

So said Billy Beane, the former general manager of the Oakland A's, and the man made immortal by Moneyball. Billy Beane knows what it takes to build a team that has a good shot of winning its division over a long 162-game season. But the postseason and the World Series can't be won by a general manager constructing the best team out of a stat sheet.

Why? Because the sample sizes are too small. The race is not to the swift in October baseball. A few injuries at the end of the regular season, or just a cold spell by a few hitters, can throw off the best-laid plans. Even a single bad inning by a normally reliable starting pitcher can change a series. This sample-size effect was compounded when the Wild Card was introduced in the 1990s, and made even worse when the Wild Card was expanded in this decade, with the single-game playoff. Time and chance happen upon them all.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The World Series would make much more sense if it consistently told us who the best team was in a given season. Sometimes it does that. Think the 1998 Yankees or the 1975 Big Red Machine. But last year the two teams in the World Series were two Wild Card teams, the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants. They won 89 and 88 games, respectively.

This severs the long baseball season from the postseason. Having a single elimination game and 10 teams does to baseball what publicity and thousands of entrants did to the World Series of Poker; it introduces a far greater chance of inferior competitors triumphing. Your team can dominate the regular season, make tremendous trades at the deadline to round out a playoff roster, then lose three times to a hot Wild Card team that was barely over .500 on the season. Season's over.

That's a problem in an age in which the smartest people in baseball media and the smartest fans are more likely to identify with the Billy Beanes of baseball than with the players themselves. Habituated by the vagaries of free agency and the thrill of fantasy baseball, fans like to think of the ways teams are constructed as much as they like identifying with the guys wearing jerseys. The peak of web traffic on many baseball news websites is actually in December, as the trade rumors and free agency period heat up.

You can even see the smartest writers rebelling against the small sample size of the playoffs when they confront the hot commentary about pitchers like David Price and Clayton Kershaw. Those two are superstar pitchers in the regular season, but have underperformed in the playoffs. "Stop saying Kershaw is a bum. We're talking about a half dozen games that can't tell us anything," they say. We wouldn't let a bad month in April make us question everything we know about a player who has been good for years. Why do it in October?

We're supposed to be suspicious of false narratives now. But false narratives are only burned away over long periods of time. The postseason doesn't afford that. And it sure does look like Kershaw and Price have been uncomfortable in their starts in the 2015 postseason. Are we not allowed to notice that?

Of course, this logic cuts both ways. Madison Bumgarner's amazing tear through the 2014 playoffs and World Series was also composed of just a handful of games. It is this handful of games that gets the most attention, that boasts a monetary bonus, and that comes with awards like the postseason MVP — not to mention a ring. Do we just dismiss Bumgarner's outlier postseason numbers as a sampling error?

Of course, we can't. Ultimately the games themselves are sampling errors if we think that the only way to judge a player is to judge him by his total output over a very long period of time. The same goes for teams and series. Baseball fans have to resign themselves to the fact that ending a game in nine innings, or having a short series, is exactly what gives baseball any sense at all. They have to reconcile themselves to the context of stats, that six games in the postseason does tell you something about a player. They have to look up and see the games again.

And once you look up from the stat sheet, the general manager disappears and you have the players themselves. You can see that Clayton Kershaw looks like a nervous wreck right now, that the Kansas City Royals have a way of unnerving their opponents, that the game isn't just about settling over time to your true talent level. It's about rising to the occasion.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Michael Brendan Dougherty

Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.