As part of SB Nation United, you’re going to be seeing some new voices at Federal Baseball, SBN featured site contributors writing about issues both local and national. Think of them as guests in the community. We’re beginning this week with Michael Bates, better known as one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage.
By Michael Bates
While we're still in the dark about a lot of things in 2012 (who's going to make it to the postseason in the American League, who's winning the second wild card in the National League, how we're going to find a way to screw Mike Trout out of his MVP award), there's one thing we do know for certain: the Washington Nationals will make their first postseason appearance since moving to the nation's capital, and the franchise's first postseason appearance since the Expos won the second-half NL East crown back in strike-shortened 1981. Thirty-four of the 43 players the Nationals used this year were not even born at that point, and only one (Mark DeRosa) would be old enough to possibly even remember it a little bit.
The extended Expos/Nationals drought represents the longest postseason absence in the majors, besting the Kansas City Royals by a full four seasons. When even the Pirates have you beat by more than a decade, you know it's been a while. Worse, no Washington-based team has played postseason baseball since 1933, when the Senators were outplayed by Mel Ott, Bill Terry, Carl Hubbell, and the New York (baseball) Giants.
It's understandable, then, that Nats fans would be nervous about how the club will perform in unfamiliar territory. We like to believe that the professional athletes we watch are just as passionate and as nervous as we are, and worry that they will crack under what we believe is the increased pressure of the playoffs. These are irrational fears, but then our sports fandom is entirely built upon our irrational attachment to laundry. So what’s one more relatively silly belief—in this case that playoff success is indicative of mental toughness combined with experience, and that failure is for newbies who haven’t learned to handle the intensity of the postseason.
Given these are the days of frequent player movement, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the Nationals are not as postseason-virginal as they appear, with six players on their current active roster with postseason experience. Throw in a healthy suspicion of terms like "clutch" and "pressure," and it would be wise to downplay those fears. That said, you could also make the argument that most teams just getting back into the postseason, especially in today’s expanded playoff era, are teams whose talent is just starting to gel, and who are therefore at a disadvantage compared to more established clubs who have been hanging around the postseason for a couple of years already.
So, we have at least a couple of potential excuses as to why a club might crash and burn in their first exposure to postseason play, but what does the data say? To find answers (or at least the first step to finding answers), I looked at how teams have typically done in their first playoff action or return to postseason action after a decade or more out of it, since the vast majority of players from the initial squad will have moved on.
Since the World Series began in 1903, 82 different clubs have made their first postseason appearance, or at least their first in a decade. Of those, 44 (53.7 percent) lost their first postseason series. That's by no means definitive, but it certainly doesn’t seem like the overwhelming underperformance we’d expect from a panicky, inexperienced team.
The wild-card era fails to provide more definitive results. Eleven of the twenty "first time" playoff teams since 1995 actually won their first post-season action, and of those, five went on to win their League Championship Series as well. Two of those teams, the 1997 Marlins and the 2002 Angels, won the World Series. All of this pretty well conforms to our expectations of what should happen in the playoffs, that each series is roughly akin to a coin flip, regardless of experience.
That seems both unfair and unsettling. By virtue of wanting it more, or of being more experienced and in control, one team should be able to will themselves to a better performance. That’s the way we want the world to work, so we can feel in control of our own destinies to some small extent. To say that the result of a series is the result of random chance as much as anything else feels fundamentally wrong, so instead of playing that game, let’s just say this: Sure, it’s possible that the Nats could fold under the pressure. But it’s equally possible they’ll be loose because nobody expects them to win. The thing is, we won’t know which it is until their first series is done and, after the fact, we ascribe a narrative to the results. I wish there was a better answer, because that would imply that there is a perceptible order to things, that good triumphs over evil, and that bad things only happen to bad people. Alas, I cannot lie to you any more than I can lie to myself. Enjoy the playoffs.