By Leigh Steinberg
Original post on Forbes.com, October 8th 2014
Another striking example of how teams with a strong philosophy, chemistry, situational hitting, and relief pitching win in the playoffs- not bloated payrolls -came this past week in Major League Baseball. The heavily favored Dodgers, Angels, Nationals, and Tigers were quickly eliminated in favor of the Cardinals, Royals, Giants, and Orioles. If big money was the key to winning in the playoffs, different teams would have won.
The Dodgers have a payroll which tops the majors with $235 million, yet they lost to the Cardinals who paid players $111 million. The Giants were salaried at $154 million because of players who have won two World Series in the last four years. The Nationals were $20 million less. The Angels payroll was $155 million and they lost to Kansas City, who paid $92 million. Detroit had a payroll of $162 million, and they lost to the Orioles with $107 million. So, something besides payroll was at work in these playoffs.
Teams like San Francisco and St. Louis are built around strong philosophies. St. Louis calls it “The Cardinal Way.” This is the fourth straight year the Cards are in the NLCS. They have strong a farm system. They have heavy team leadership, where older players mentor younger players, as do the Giants. As a result, a definite team chemistry and bond is formed amongst the players. In addition, Kansas City developed amazing team rapport this season. These teams play “small ball”, do not rely on home runs, and instead feature smart hitting, base running, and strategy. They have strong relief pitching. This approach gives St. Louis, San Francisco and Kansas City the ability to win in tight games. Every player is able to bunt or hit a sacrifice fly and deliver what is needed in that game situation.
The Angels won their most recent World Series in 2002 and dominated baseball this year with good chemistry and total participation. They lost their best performing pitcher, Garrett Richards, and an additional starter, Tyler Skaggs, to injury this summer. They put on the brakes and played Minor Leaguers with several weeks to go and lost their momentum and batting eye. The Angels have moved to a strategy of aging superstars paid on long term contracts for past performance rather than realistic future projections. Josh Hamilton went 0-13 in the recent series and they are stuck with two more years at $25 and $30 million. Albert Pujols had limited success in the series.
The Dodgers used to have a set lineup of players developed in the minors who knew how to situationally hit and deal with the distant dimension of Dodger Stadium. Their chemistry was weak this year, with little leadership. Their highly paid aging free agents spent much time on the injury list. They could not hit in the playoffs at Dodger Stadium. No one could have predicted Cy Young Award winning pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, coming off of a phenomenal season, would lose two games.
Strong starting and relief pitching with great situational hitting and good defense is the formula for winning in the postseason. Team rapport and good leadership is also key. What wins pennants does not seem to be the same skill set as needed in a short series. Baseball is enhanced by new playoff teams like the Royals and the Orioles being in the mix. Until someone figures out what the Cardinals and Giants have utilized and can replicate it, those teams will continue to dominate in the postseason.