Do the Brewers have the “secret sauce” for success?

axford

Even if there is only a moderate amount of drama among Brewers fans surrounding the one game left to be played, there is a lot of anxiety surrounding what could happen over the next few weeks. The 2011 Brewers are arguably the best club Milwaukee has seen since ’82, and to go this far in an “all-in” season only to suffer a quick one-and-done in the playoffs could be disastrous for Brewers fans. Possibly worse would be the departure of Prince Fielder, breaking up a once-young core that was built from the ground up and carried the hopes of a suffering fan base, only to never win a postseason series.

There isn’t a whole lot I can say here that will instantly assuage the worries of everyone. Postseason baseball isn’t the total crapshoot some like to make it out to be, but the 3-5 game sample of the division series leaves enough room for randomness and variation that it’s very plausible Milwaukee could suffer a one-and-done at the hands of Houston, say nothing of a team very close to their caliber. Quite simply, unless the Brewers have figured out the secret recipe for October magic, it’s impossible to assign a number to their chances against an opponent that hasn’t yet been determined with any certainty.

However, there are some traits shared by many teams who go deep into the postseason, called the “Secret Sauce” by Nate Silver at Baseball Prospectus, who first reported the finding. In 2005, Silver and Dayn Perry tested 26 characteristics of teams for their relationship with postseason success. Only three were found to have a statistically significant relationship: A staff of pitchers who miss bats, a strong defense, and a good closer. 

All of this makes sense if you think about it. Almost all of the teams that make the postseason have above-average hitters, so run prevention is what usually sets teams apart. Also, closers are critical to postseason success because they pitch a much higher percentage of a team’s innings than they do during the regular season, while also getting the highest leverage frames.

Baseball Prospectus stopped tracking Secret Sauce last year, but today we’re going to use a slightly different version to evaluate the postseason prospects of the Brewers and the other 9 teams still in playoff contention. This will be done by statistically ranking each team for each category (strikeout pitching, defense, and closer), then adding (mixing? Blending?) them all up into one shiny number.

The first variable shown to relate to postseason success was pitcher strikeout rate. We’ll simply use strikeouts per nine innings without adjusting for park or league. (Nothing you’re about to see has been adjusted for anything, so AL teams are probably a little underrated and NL teams are probably a bit overrated.):

K/9

Rank

ATL

8.2

1

PHI

7.9

4

MIL

7.8

5

NYY

7.6

8

BOS

7.5

9

TEX

7.3

12

TBR

7.1

15

DET

6.9

19

STL

6.7

23

ARI

6.6

25

These numbers are probably familiar and hardly shocking, with the rotations of Milwaukee and Philly coming in towards the top, while the duct-taped together staff of Arizona (10 different guys have made starts) sitting at the bottom. If you want to stop and let out an evil cackle upon seeing the Brewers at the top of this list and the Cardinals at the bottom, you can, but please try to stay objective while everyone else moves on to defense.

To measure fielding, we’ll turn to defensive efficiency (DE), a creation of Baseball Prospectus. DE is a measure of a team’s efficiency at turning batted balls into outs (it can be approximated by subtracting opponent’s batting average on balls in play from one) that doesn’t contain any of the uncertainty and human error of play-by-play based metrics and was used by BP in their Secret Sauce calculations:

DE

Rank

TBR

0.732

1

TEX

0.723

2

BOS

0.715

8

PHI

0.714

9

ARI

0.713

11

MIL

0.713

12

ATL

0.711

14

DET

0.708

18

STL

0.704

20

NYY

0.702

22

It makes sense to see Tampa Bay at the top of this list, just as it’s no surprise to see the Brewers rank fairly low. (I was actually surprised just to see the Brewers above league-average. They ranked 29th last year.) Although it’s probably just coincidental, it’s strange to see so many teams at the top of the DE rankings at the bottom of the strikeout rankings and vice versa.

Our third and final stat is closer Win Probability Added, which may require some additional explanation.  If you don’t know what Win Probability Added (WPA for short) is, it’s pretty well explained here. I defined each team’s closer as whoever got them the most saves this season, which means Francisco Rodriguez, for this article, is still the Mets’ closer. WPA is being used here instead of the various ERA estimators to stick with the original sauce calculations, which used BP’s win-expectation metric WXRL.

Cl

Cl WPA

RANK

MIL

Axford

4.11

1

BOS

Papelbon

3.96

2

DET

Valverde

3.82

3

NYY

Rivera

3.38

4

ARI

Putz

3.03

5

PHI

Madson

2.46

7

ATL

Kimbrel

2.29

8

LAA

Walden

1.43

15

TBA

Farnsworth

0.94

17

TEX

Feliz

0.57

22

STL

Salas

0.3

24

This isn’t perfect, as some teams won’t call upon their closers any more than they do during the regular season, and for others, “closer” doesn’t necessarily mean “best reliever”. (For example, Yankee setup man David Robertson has a higher WPA than Mariano Rivera, who is basically a one-inning closer with Robertson and Rafael Soriano in the back of the ‘pen.)This also doesn’t account for playing time (Fernando Salas ranks so low partly because he’s only been closing for half the season), but thanks to both his durability and dominance (72 innings with an ERA nearly half the league average), John Axford comes out on top.

By adding up a team’s rank in all three categories, you get a points system that looks like this:

MIL

18

BOS

19

PHI

20

ATL

23

TBR

33

NYY

34

TEX

36

DET

40

ARI

41

STL

67

A few words on the final result: First, everything here was done objectively, and the metrics were chosen for their similarity to the real secret sauce calculations. (Even with that disclaimer, I’m sure Tony LaRussa will be complaining to St. Louis reporters about this within a couple days.) Second, this does make the Brewers look very good, but what you make of that is up to you. There are a million variables for postseason success, and Secret Sauce only accounts for three of them. It’s entirely possible that the Brewers won’t have any close games in the NLDS, and John Axford will only pitch an inning-and-a-third. It’s just as likely that they get shut out three times and no amount of run prevention will save them. These numbers are certainly promising, but that doesn’t mean they’ll ensure a series win, or even matter.

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