The myth that is playoff experience

Francsico Lindor WFNY Top 10
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The Cleveland Indians are a week away from their first real post season action since 2007. Cleveland’s baseball boys made a quick one game visit to the 2013 post season where they lost the play-in game to the Tampa Bay Rays, but that isn’t the same as real October baseball.

The Indians are full of young talent that has never made a post season appearance. Corey Kluber, Roberto Perez, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Tyler Naquin, and Cody Allen—among others—are all about to get their first taste of playoff baseball. Sound the “playoff inexperience” alarm. I have already heard the chatters of the inexperience card, as I am sure you have too. Postseason experience, however, doesn’t matter. At all.

I have written before about my dismay for baseball clichés and dumb narratives, but postseason experience may be the worst one. There is zero statistical evidence that players perform worse if they have never been in the playoffs before. Inexperience is just an easy scapegoat to use if a young team or player is struggling.

Francisco Lindor is in the midst of the worst slump in his short MLB career, having gone hitless in nine consecutive games. Every player goes through ebbs and flows of this kind. Slumps are not limited to just rookies or just veterans—they happen to everyone. The only difference is that when it happens to a young guy like Lindor, it’s cause he’s “pressing” or he isn’t “used to the long season.” When it happens to a guy like Mike Napoli, it’s because “these things happen to every player.”

I bring this up because should Lindor’s slump carry into October, baseball pundits will surely be screaming “inexperience” at the top of their lungs. But if a guy who has been in the playoffs before, like Mike Napoli, has a rough October, it will just be bad timing, or perhaps, that he isn’t “clutch.”

One of my favorite things about the playoff experience myth is how often it can get crossed over with the “clutch” myth. People love to bring up how good Carlos Beltran is in the playoffs. You can’t make it through a post-season without someone talking about how much more dangerous Beltran is now that the calendar has turned to fall.

In Beltran’s first post-season in 2004, he went bonkers—20-46 with eight home runs in just 12 games. When inexperience should have destroyed Beltran and turned him into a lesser man, he responded by slashing .435/.538/1.022. If that is how incredible Beltran was in his first ever post-season, surely he’d be hitting in the .700’s by this point in his career. Well, believe it or not, it hasn’t exactly worked like that. In 40 post-season games since 2004, Beltran has hit just .297 with just eight home runs. A .297 batting average and a home run pace of 32 over a 162 game season is a tremendous year. But if players get better with experience, it just doesn’t really add up.

Remember the NLDS last year? The Chicago Cubs, who hadn’t been in the playoffs since 2008 and were full of players with zero playoff experience took on the St. Louis Cardinals. These were the same Cardinals that were playing in their fifth straight post-season and were loaded with experience. Well, the Cubbies won. Amazing, huh?

When the Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets in last years World Series, a big part of their winning was because they had just been there the year before, when they lost to the experienced San Francisco Giants. Having been in the spotlight before, the Royals were able to come out on top and beat the inexperienced Mets. With back-to-back World Series appearances, the Royals headed into 2016 with a ton of experience, and they were able to turn that into a season in which they won’t even be playing in the playoffs.

There was also the 2012 World Series where Justin Verlander was making his 12th career playoff start but still managed to get rocked for five runs on six hits in just four innings. This was the same World Series where Ryan Vogelsong was making his first World Series appearance and just his third post-season appearance, and threw five and two thirds scoreless innings against Detroit.

And who could forget the 2003 World Series? That was the one where the then Florida Marlins made it to the World Series as a wild card to take on a New York Yankees team who was playing in their sixth World Series in eight years. The Marlins, inexperienced and all, were able to defeat the scary-experienced Yankees four games to two to win their second World Series. In fact, 23 year-old rookie Josh Beckett threw a complete game shut-out in the clinching game of the series.

There’s so many examples we can play with here. The 2005 White Sox, the 2007 Rockies, the 2008 Rays, Michael Wacha, Evan Longoria—the options are endless. At the end of the day talent triumphs experience. A player may feel a little nervous his first at-bat or his first pitch, but it goes away. The mound is still 60 feet, six inches; the bases are still 90 feet apart; and you still have to get 27 outs to win the game. Nothing about the game changes—well, outside of perception.

If the above examples are not enough proof for you, do not panic, for I am here. I went back and tracked how rookies performed in the past 10 post-seasons and then compared them to MLB average in the last 10 seasons. While there are players who are not rookies that are making their post-season debuts every year, who better to look at than rookies? Rookies are the most inexperienced of the inexperienced. You know what I found? Nothing of significance, just as I have always hypothesized.

In the past 10 years, the average MLB hitter has slashed .258/.326/.407. According to guys like Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac, a rookie would probably slash no where near this line, because the idea of playing with thousands of people watching, (something they do every night) is just too much for a young man to handle. However, rookies are right on track with their older, more experienced and confident peers. Since the 2006 playoffs, rookies are slashing .255/.320/.436 in post-season play. While the nerves of playoff baseball may get to the average fan, it doesn’t impact players.

In those same 10 years, MLB pitchers have posted a 4.08 ERA with a 1.34 WHIP, while striking out 7.35 batters per nine innings, walking 3.16 over the same span. Rookies in the playoffs, a time where “high stress pitches” are brought up as often as the Golden State Warriors blowing a 3-1 Finals lead with the first unanimous MVP on their roster, are actually much better than the average pitcher over the last 10 years. Since the 2006 playoffs, rookie pitchers have put up a 3.14 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP, 8.06 strikeouts per nine, and just 2.98 walks per nine.

Rookies have an ERA that is almost an entire point lower than the average pitcher in the past 10 years. What exactly is the pressure and the lack of experience doing to these guys?

Is the sample size too small? You could say that. Obviously, you always want a bigger sample. But if we go back ten more years, do you think it will change that much? Maybe the guys from 1996-2005 were the ones who really struggled and if we added them in ERA’s would be sky-high. But probably not. Playoff experience is just a myth. Your dad told you about it because his dad told him about it. Your great grandpa told your grandpa about it because he heard some guys at the steel mill talking about it. There’s no real evidence behind it, it’s just something people say. It’s up there with “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” as silliest sports clichés.

When Francisco Lindor steps in the batters box next week, his heart might be beating a little faster than normal, he may have sweaty palms, and he might be shaky. But when the nerves settle, he’s just going to be playing baseball, and he’s very good at that.

The Cleveland Indians have lost 67 games so far this season, and they might lose a few more. Sixty-seven of those losses are due to the other team scoring more runs than them; zero are due to inexperience. Remember this when October rolls around: The clock resets for everyone involved, and no benefits are given to those who have been there before.