The 2015-16 free agent class, which can start fielding offers this Saturday, features quite a few big-name players who advanced far in the postseason, and those guys saw varied results in October. On the high end, Daniel Murphy demolished the National League playoffs, homering seven times in six consecutive games between the NLDS and NLCS before cooling off both offensively and defensively in the World Series. Ben Zobrist carried a strong second half into the postseason, batting .313 with a pair of home runs, eight doubles, and 15 runs scored. Zack Greinke, though the Dodgers' hitters refused to help him out, had a 3.29 ERA and 0.88 WHIP and struck out 17 in 13-plus NLDS innings, building on already solid numbers from 2013 and 2014. On the flip side, David Price allowed 16 earned runs in four starts, bringing his lifetime playoff ERA up to an un-Price-like 5.12. Johnny Cueto was up and down, alternating lousy and brilliant starts. Yoenis Cespedes, an August and September behemoth for the Mets, was quiet after the regular season's end, hitting .222/.232/.352.
Should the Yankees care about any of this? The short answer is no. Playoff stats create a giant ad hoc fallacy, where fans, media and sometimes baseball executives themselves see a short-term outcome and make fantastic assumptions about the cause and whether it'll continue. If you struggle in the postseason, you're a choker, even if your problems are actually due to fatigue, a hidden injury or just a random and poorly-timed slump. If you excel in October, you're clutch, even if that excellence is random and unrepeatable as hot streaks tend to be.
Rightly or wrongly, though, these performances will, in some way, affect what free agents are able to get in this winter's crowded market. Elites like Price, Greinke, and Cueto won't see their price tags change to any great extent, but players who are a rung lower in the free agent hierarchy could. Murphy would have been a fairly ho-hum signing a month ago, but he's now a big public relations get, having done so well in his debut on the national stage. Teams that might not want to enter the nine-figure zone for contracts this year can sign him to a lower, but still inflated number, and sell him as a star.
On the other hand, Murphy's onslaught against the Dodgers and Cubs could actually cost him if it prompts the Mets to make a qualifying offer. Cespedes' struggles might lead some GMs to see his second half as a fluke–his career numbers are nowhere near that–and lean toward options with more projectable skill sets in Justin Upton and Jason Heyward. We're not talking about guys doubling or halving their value here, but there will be some movement in both directions. Carlos Beltran's an example of a player whose perfectly-timed postseason runs in 2004 and 2013–both walk years–may have gotten him an extra year and a couple extra million AAV in each case.
Not many players in baseball history have seen enough exposure where their numbers start to creep out of the "small sample size" red zone. Only five position players have ever exceeded 108 games, two thirds of a regular season, in the playoffs. Only eight starting pitchers have made 20 or more starts, roughly two thirds of a season's worth. Finally, five relievers have made 40 appearances, around two thirds of a season for a guy with an average workload. In more of these cases than not, their playoff stats look a lot like their regular season numbers.
|Position Player||PS Games||PS BA||PS OBP||PS SLG||RS BA||RS OBP||RS SLG|
|Starting Pitcher||PS GS||PS ERA||PS WHIP||RS ERA||RS WHIP|
|Relief Pitcher||PS Games||PS ERA||PS WHIP||RS ERA||RS WHIP|
Among the position players and starting pitchers, there's not a lot of variation between regular and postseason stats. Smoltz and Lackey may have found a way to elevate somewhat, but not to an exceptional degree, and Smoltz's numbers include 14 appearances out of the bullpen. Maddux and Clemens could have pitched better in October, but both were still effective, and Clemens made more playoff starts late in his career than early, where fatigue would be more of a factor. Jorge Posada and David Justice weren't great in the postseason, but Posada was a catcher putting up those numbers after seven months of squatting, and anyone who watched Justice on the Yankees in 2000 wouldn't call him un-clutch.
Three of the five relievers - all Yankees - did get notably better in the playoffs, so if there's an area where teams should account for postseason numbers, it's the bullpen. October games tend to be close and hard-fought, and closers and setup men gain importance as they're often asked to get more than three outs and starters get put on shorter leashes. Still, figuring out which relievers get better in the playoffs and which get worse, for the vast majority who haven't thrown 40 innings there, is nothing more than guesswork.
Another thing about being a postseason hero or goat is that you're only one until you aren't one. When the Yankees signed CC Sabathia after the 2008 season, they were taking a chance on a pitcher with extremely shoddy playoff stats - a 7.92 ERA and 2.32 WHIP to be exact. The guy who showed up in October '09 was another thing entirely. He posted a 1.98 ERA and 1.05 WHIP over five starts and won the ALCS MVP. Randy Johnson had a 5.19 ERA in 60 postseason innings between 1995 and 1999. The 2001 Yankees learned that wouldn't always be the case when the Big Unit beat them three times in the World Series. Barry Bonds got painted with the choke-artist's brush by going 19 for 97 in his first five playoff series' - all losses. Then in 2002, he led the Giants almost all the way to a title, hitting .356/.581/.978 with eight homers over 17 prolific games. This year, Murphy managed to go from hotshot to shot down in one postseason alone. Playoff stats are like investments that get sold on late night infomercials. Past performance does not necessarily predict future results.
Is it possible that certain players inherently do better in big games than others? Sure. In fact, it's probable. Baseball's played by human beings, not cyborgs. Naturally there should be some who relish the most pressure-packed opportunities, who have ice water in their veins, laugh in the face of danger, and all that good stuff. There are others who get overwhelmed, change their approach and make mistakes they otherwise wouldn't. The problem is that most of the time, there's just not enough statistical or even anecdotal evidence to effectively decide who's who. It's wrong to make declarations about a player's character and mental toughness based on 75 at-bats or 30 innings. In most cases, in basing who you want and who you don't in the playoffs, that's exactly what you're doing.