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Do Post-Season Stats Mean What We Think They Mean?

trophyThe Hall and its electorates think strong October performance is a strong signifier of greatness. The plaques talk a lot about post-season numbers. For some weaker inductees post-season numbers probably decided their case.

Yet, here’s a subtle but important point that I rarely if ever hear: A player’s post-season statistics are almost always presented in isolation from his teammates’ or from the series he played in.

In other words, we have no frame of reference here, and beginning with our 1911 election (which covers up to 1905), the post-season takes on increased prominence because the first modern Fall Classic was played in 1903.

A confounding example: In the 1906 World Series, Frank Chance only managed an OPS of .646 in the six-game series and failed to drive in a run while the Cubs lost to the Hitless-Wonder White Sox. His regular-season mark was .849, good for a 158 OPS+ that was fourth in the NL. His OPS dropped 25% in those six October games. If you credited or debited players for World Series play, you would probably dock the so-called “Peerless Leader.” But consider: his team limped to a .519 OPS.

Did the Cubs lose despite Chance’s performance? After all, he was 24% better than his teammates.

Did the Cubs lose regardless of Chance’s performance? After all, one guy can’t carry the whole load.

Did the Cubs lose because of Chance’s performance? After all, they needed Chance, their best hitter, to perform well to win.

Chicken. Egg. Debate!

Or maybe this question is more your flavor:

Should we really let six games change our perception of a player?

These questions can all be answered affirmatively, and they can all be answered negatively, depending on one’s point of view. They don’t get us anywhere.

Short series stats tell us what happened, but that’s it. Because every single series is different—and often wildly so—and because each team in every single series has its own run-context, and because October series are evanescent by their nature, there are no benchmarks to rely on. We are out of our element here. Which explains why players’ numbers are almost universally presented in isolation. Ultimately, we all know intuitively that they do little to actually change the needle on a player’s evaluation. If they did Pat Borders and Lenny Dykstra would be a much bigger deal. Yet there’s all those post-season numbers in bronze.

So to answer the question at the head of this post: Who the heck knows? Maybe the question should instead read: What do we think they should mean?

—Eric

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  1. Pingback: Who Was the Best Pitcher of the 1960s? | the Hall of Miller and Eric - April 7, 2014

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