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How reliable will the Guardians’ skillset be in the playoffs?

Everything is chaos, embrace it

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

One of the most interesting debates about the postseason, in my opinion, is whether or not clutch is a skill. Was there something inherent in Reggie Jackson or Madison Bumgarner that made them untouchable in October? Or is the small sample randomness inherent in baseball the real issue?

The first chapter of Tyler Kepner’s new book, The Grandest Stage, really digs into this question (spoiler alert for my next Dog-Eared Corner article, coming soon) and ultimately does not have an answer. One of the most fascinating examples, however, comes from looking at another one of those players that earned a reputation as a clutch playoff performer: Derek Jeter. Over 158 postseason games, almost a full season and certainly not a small sample, Jeter slashed .308/.374/.465 with a strikeout rate of 18.4% and walk rate of 9%, which nearly perfectly matches his career line of .310/.377/.440 with a strikeout rate of 14.6% and walk rate of 8.6%.

As I wrote last week, the idea that Cleveland would need to hit home runs in the postseason in order to succeed — even though that has very much not been the team’s strength in the regular season — because some recent champions were homer-reliant is a fallacy. If the Guardians are going to succeed in the postseason, it will have to come on the backs of their strengths. Mike Hattery of Everybody Hates Cleveland wrote a great piece about how those exact strengths will make Cleveland a difficult team to face, but that made me wonder if we can actually count on those strengths in a short series — specifically strikeout rate.

In the regular season, the Guardians have been the best team at avoiding the strikeout. Their 18.3% strikeout rate is 1.2% lower than the Astros, who are the next-best team at not striking out. However, pitching is not only better in the postseason, but it is also optimized with teams keeping leashes shorter on everyone and seeking to exploit every matchup; thus, strikeouts naturally go up in response. To see how much, let’s see how teams in the last three Division Series fared (excluding 2020 because of “the circumstances”).

Regular Season vs. Division Series strikeout rates

DS teams Regular season K% DS K% Delta
DS teams Regular season K% DS K% Delta
21 HOU 19.4 26.1 6.7
21 CWS 22.8 25.5 2.7
21 BOS 22.6 15.2 -7.4
21 TBR 24.8 29.1 4.3
21 LAD 22.6 22.5 -0.1
21 SFG 23.6 29.7 6.1
21 ATL 24 23.4 -0.6
21 MIL 24 35.8 11.8
19 NYY 23 23.3 0.3
19 MIN 20.9 31.3 10.4
19 HOU 18.2 27.7 9.5
19 TBR 23.8 31.8 8
19 WAS 20.9 23.2 2.3
19 LAD 21.6 33.2 11.6
19 STL 23 24.6 1.6
19 ATL 23.3 24.9 1.6
18 BOS 19.9 18.4 -1.5
18 NYY 22.7 21.2 -1.5
18 HOU 19.5 20.3 0.8
18 CLE 18.9 31.3 12.4
18 MIL 23.5 21 -2.5
18 COL 22.6 28.8 6.2
18 LAD 22.6 24 1.4
18 ATL 20.6 24.2 3.6
Average 3.654166667
Strikeout rates from the regular season and Division Series from the 2021, 2019, and 2018 seasons

In those shorter series, strikeout rates increased by an average of 3.65% from regular season rates; however, the differences ranged between a 7.4-point decrease and a 12.4-point increase. With such a spread, this data is really noisy and not likely to lead us to any conclusions.

Perhaps looking specifically at Houston could help, though. Houston has been a Division Series team each of the last three (normal) postseasons and, perhaps more importantly, has also been one of the best teams at not striking out (second lowest K% in 2018, lowest in 2019 and 2021, and second lowest in 2022). So, if strikeout rate is a repeatable skill then maybe the Astros could provide evidence as to whether it is repeatable over small samples.

The average change in strikeout rate in the Astros' recent Division Series, though, is even greater (4.33%) than the overall average and the range varies from 0.8% to 9.5%. So, it seems that the randomness of a short series is the only thing we can really count on. The 2022 Guardians have done a remarkable job playing their style of baseball, but whether they’re truly hard to get out might be more psychological than historical.

Part of the reason the debate over players being clutch or not rages so intensely is because we don’t have any easy answer. If you can tell me why Ryan Merritt was out of baseball three years after etching his name in the memory of every Cleveland fan or how Roberto Pérez could have as many multiple home run games in the World Series as he does in the regular season, then you’re smarter than I.

I agree the Guardians have a skill set that could make them dangerous in the postseason. But I’m filled with anxiety over the idea that their skills may not show up in a short series. It’s good anxiety, though, because nothing this team has done so far has been what’s expected. So, bring on the postseason, let’s get wild.