Carleton: Does postseason experience really matter?

From Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus on October 14, 2013:

David Ortiz has come to the plate in a playoff game more than 300 times over the course of his career. Justin Verlander has started 14 games in the postseason and faced more than 300 batters. When they meet during this week’s American League Championship Series, who has the advantage? What about when Ortiz inevitably faces Tigers lefty reliever extraordinaire Drew Smyly, who prior to this year had a postseason resume consisting of four innings (all last year)? What about postseason neophyte (and rookie in general) Jose Alvarez? Does Verlander’s experience in the postseason give him an advantage over Will Middlebrooks, who made his playoff debut last week, that he doesn’t have against Ortiz, who’s been doing this since 2002 with the Twins? (Post hoc: I wrote this before Big Papi hit his big home run. #YCPB)

Of course it does! Haven’t you listened to former players, TV pundits, newspaper columnists, and everyone on sports talk radio? The playoffs are a “different game.” The pressure is “turned up a notch.” Guys who have been around know how to find “an extra gear.” Veterans are better at handling the “pressure cooker.” Yes, I’m writing an entire paragraph of sentences with “trite sports clichés in mocking quotation marks.”

Like a lot of conventional baseball wisdom, the idea of previous playoff experience conferring an advantage on a player (or a team) smacks of amateurish pop psychology that’s been repeated enough times for people to stop questioning whether or not it’s true. (Well, that’s not entirely true. In 2008, David Gassko found evidence that teams that had more playoff experience were more likely to win their series than we might expect. Also, Joe Sheehan gave it the idea the Joe Sheehan treatment five years ago.) In the past, we’ve seen cases where conventional wisdom has proven to be true, and others where it has proven to be taurine feces. I vote that we take a look at what the numbers really say.

Two weeks ago, I looked at whether postseason performance was related to whether a team had to fight down the stretch to get into the playoffs, as opposed to cruising through September already assured of their postseason berth. It turned out that this sort of trial by fire had some (statistically iffy, but still worth mentioning) positive effects for a team’s pitchers. I argued that this might be a case of stress inoculation, where players get used to the stress of playing high-leverage games before playing…more high-leverage games. Might the same sort of thing be happening here? Is a player who has faced down the pressure of the playoffs before better able to handle it this year?

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Originally published: October 14, 2013. Last Updated: October 14, 2013.