As we get set to begin the off-season, now seems to be as good a time as ever to take a look at what has made this year's playoff teams successful throughout the year, which may give us a clue as to what to do in order to build a contender. I will be taking a look at the AL playoffs before coming back and giving the NL the once over as well. Take the jump with me here, and I'll try to identify some common threads between the playoffs teams from this year.
1. The Ace of Spades
Although highly lacking in creativity, this seems to be the most obvious answer. Below is the list of the aces, along with their respective ERA+
Cliff Lee: 130
CC Sabathia: 134
David Price: 145
Francisco Liriano: 115
The number for Liriano is a little lower than you would typically expect to see from a playoff team's ace, but perhaps that is also part of the reason they got bounced from the playoffs so easily (most definitely, however, not the only reason). David Price also did not pitch particularly well when his team most needed him to ( 6IP, 8H, 3ER isn't terrible, but when you're facing Cliff Lee in an elimination game, you need to be dominate) and thus the ALCS matched Sabathia and Lee. Sabathia pitched alright, but it was clear the best pitcher in the series ( when he was starting that is) was Cliff Lee
2. Star Power up the Middle - Offense
I say offensively because the heart of the lineup is just that for a reason. Their job is to create runs. Much was made about Brett Gardner's hustle, grit and determination. And all those intangibles are great to have I suppose, but they don't do much without production. Each offense was lead by a core of hitters whose individual OPS+ each exceeded 120.
Josh Hamilton - 175
Nelson Cruz - 150
Vladimir Guerrero - 122
Josh Hamilton was flat out dominate in the ALCS, and he certainly helped carry this team throughout that series. Vlad Guerrero, when everyone thought he was over the hill, has come back and been very good in the post-season this year.
Robinson Cano - 142
Mark Texiera - 125
Alex Rodriguez - 123
The Yanks lost in the ALCS, but you can't blame Robinson Cano for that. Mark Texiera may want to accept some credit, as he failed to show up for the series (0-16 at the dish) before injuring his hamstring. Apparently, A-Rod failed to get the memo as well, because he went 4-21 with 0 HR and, in case you hadn't heard, the strikeout to end the series.
Evan Longoria - 142
Carl Crawford - 134
I expected to see more Rays on this list, including the likes of Ben Zobrist. Interesting note here is the stat line for Carlos Pena. Although he only hit .196 on the year, his OPS+ was 102. Longoria put up excellent numbers this year, and it's probably safe to say will continue to do so into the future. But when your star hitter goes 4-20 in a series, and your other star hitter (Crawford) goes 3-21 well... I'm beginning to wonder how that series went to 5 games.
Joe Mauer - 137
Justin Morneau - 184*
Delmon Young - 121
I know the inclusion of Justin Morneau on this list will stir up some controversy, but the guy had a 184 OPS+ through 81 games. Yes, you read that correctly. 181 OPS+. Assuming he maintains that pace, not only is he a runaway for the MVP, but that season is as good as Hank Aaron at 25, Willie McCovey at 32, and The Babe himself at 27. Wow. Anyway, because he played 81 games, he played a major role in their season, thus I added him.
3. Is there a need to be so defensive?
Creative right? Anyway, for the purpose of this discussion, I have chosen to use UZR/150 (from FanGraphs) for my numbers. Yes I am fully aware of the dissenting opinions this will cause, but I am more concerned about consistency across the board in comparing the teams.
Elvis Andrus: 0.3
Curtis Granderson: 6.6
Robinson Cano: -0.9
Derek Jeter: -5.4
BJ Upton: 0.5
Sean Rodriguez: 7.4
Jason Bartlett: -13.8
Denard Span: 6.4
JJ Hardy: 12.8
Orlando Hudson: 12.0
What do these numbers mean? Well, to be honest, I have no clue. The Twins were, at least up the middle, the clearly superior defensive team, and yet the Yanks cleaned their clocks in the ALDS. The Rangers were the better team defensively up the middle, but not spectacular. To me, this brings to question the importance of defense to qualifying for the playoffs. Then again, we can (almost) all agree that UZR takes 3 years to normalize, so perhaps these numbers do not provide enough context.
These are a few trends that I have noticed among the AL playoff qualifiers. There were other teams that could probably be expanded into this highly "scientific" study, but I chose these teams because the goal, according to NH, is not to simply finish .500, but to make the playoffs and compete for championships. If you want to know where to start, teams that are already there seem to be a good place to look.