Not all playoff teams are created equal. Some years, there will be a lot of depth and parity throughout both the American and National League. Other years will be top-heavy, with one or two dominant rosters and the rest fighting to keep up.

But how does this year’s group of playoff contenders compare to what we have seen in the recent past? 

Baseball continues to evolve thanks to deeper analysis and studies being done around the world that change the way teams are built. That evolution will alter the way the game is played, with some teams emphasizing more defense than ever before and others looking to play matchups. 

To compare teams and numbers, we are going to follow the current playoff format. That means we are going to take the top five teams in both leagues and compare their numbers in a wide-ranging set of categories, both from a complete average and individual team levels, to see how they stack up to past years. 


Batting Average

Highest Average: 2009 Los Angeles Angels (.285)

Lowest Average: 2012 Oakland Athletics (.238)

What is interesting is just how quickly the AL batting average fell off. In 2009, the four playoff teams hit a collective .278. Three years later that number dropped by 20 points.

National League lineups have stayed fairly consistent over the last five years, with averages ranging from .256 to .263. With a large sample size of games to judge, that can represent a significant number of hits, but the gap is much less than what the AL offenses are doing. 


On-Base Percentage

Highest OBP: 2009 New York Yankees (.362)

Lowest OBP: 2012 Oakland Athletics (.310)

Once again we see that NL lineups have stayed within the same realm of on-base percentage today that they were five years ago, though it is alarming to see that the league continues to move downward. 

For the AL, even though there was another steep decline after the 2009 season, things are actually picking up again this season. The .334 OBP in 2013 is the highest it has been in two years and not far off the .338 mark in 2010. 

This would seem to indicate one of two things. Either the AL has found a strategy to catch up with the better pitching, or the NL is so rich with pitching that things will keep getting worse for offenses in the senior circuit. 

Last year’s Oakland team would have ranked 29th in baseball during the 2009 season, just ahead of San Francisco’s .309 mark. 


Slugging Percentage

Highest Slugging Percentage: 2009 New York Yankees (.478)

Lowest Slugging Percentage: 2012 Atlanta Braves (.389)

You can see the differences between the two leagues as we move through these categories. 

NL playoff teams—and more likely the NL as a whole—have been on a straight line down for the last half-decade. Offense as a whole has been dropping across baseball, but it appears that the AL is at least slowing the trend a little with a bounce-back year here and there. 

Again, the AL had a down year in 2010 before a big rebound in 2011. Things have been dropping steadily ever since, and the AL may take the path the NL has been on the last five years.

But the value of the DH in the lineup can’t be understated. 


Average Runs Per Game

Highest Scoring Team: 2009 New York Yankees (5.65 per game)

Lowest Scoring Team: 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates (3.89 per game)

Not surprisingly, given that runs have been harder to come by in recent years, the playoff teams are finding it a little more difficult to put up big offensive numbers. 

American League teams will always score more than their NL counterparts because lineups are deeper thanks to the designated hitter. But neither group is immune to the direction of the game. 

To illustrate the changes in the game, the 2013 Pirates are averaging 3.89 runs per game. No team in baseball during the 2009 season had a total that low. San Diego came close with 3.94 per game. 


Stolen Bases

Highest Stolen Base Total: 2010 Tampa Bay Rays (172)

Lowest Stolen Base Total: 2013 Detroit Tigers (32)

I wanted to highlight stolen bases for two reasons. First, at times there is a misconception that National League teams are going to be more inclined to steal bases because there’s one fewer spot in the lineup and the need to manufacture runs is higher. 

But as we can see from the stolen base totals, that really isn’t the case. Some numbers can be skewed in this category by one team, like the 2010 Rays having a ridiculously high total that accounts for 37 percent of the 466 from all AL playoff teams. 

Even more surprising is the fact that the NL has only had more stolen bases than the AL one time during this five-year period.

The least surprising stat to come from this research is the 2013 Tigers having the lowest total of all playoff teams over the last five years. 


Defensive Runs Saved

Highest DRS Total: 2011 Tampa Bay Rays (+85)

Lowest DRS Total: 2011 Philadelphia Phillies (-59)

American League teams often have to decide between offense or defense. Some teams are able to find enough of both, like Tampa Bay in 2011.

But a lot of the time one sees results like these, which isn’t to say that NL teams can’t put together dreadful defensive teams (see: Philadelphia in 2011). It should also be noted that, with the exception of 2009 when the Yankees won the World Series, every season the NL has had a better DRS total than the AL, it has won the championship.

(St. Louis also won in 2011, but the NL didn’t have as high of a DRS total as the AL.)

Fans and the media are starting to gravitate towards defensive metrics, though admittedly they are still a work in progress because different sites are using different formulas to calculate the results. 


Top Strikeout Staffs (Based on K/9 IP)

Here is an interesting category. I am not surprised that the Tigers have the No. 1 and 2 spots on the list because of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander at the top of the rotation.

However, what did surprise me is the AL holds three of the top four spots and four of the top eight. Typically NL strikeout totals will be higher for reasons already mentioned, especially the fact the lineups aren’t as deep. 

But what we see from this list is that, at least among playoff contenders, you can find as many strikeouts in the AL as in the NL. 

Even more surprising is that the highest strikeout totals have all come in the last three years. The 2010 Giants are the only pre-2011 staff on this list, which helps explain why that team won a World Series. 

This is a category that certainly favors 2013 over everyone else. Two of the top eight teams are from this season, and if we took things one step further, the 2013 Dodgers would fall on the list with 8.0 per nine innings. 

They say you need power arms that can miss bats to win in October. The 2012 Tigers made it to the World Series, the 2012 Yankees played in the ALCS, and 2010 Giants won a championship. 


Top ERAs Among Playoff Teams/Contenders

The pitching renaissance we are seeing in 2013 finally rears its ugly head for the first time. We have seen some of the offensive numbers that have dropped over the last five years, but now we see that three of the top five team ERAs heading into October have come this year. 

We do still have three weeks left in the regular season, but for the most part what we see now is likely to stay the same. 

Also, there is not one AL team on the list because it is harder to post the lowest ERA pitching in a league that favors hitting. The lowest AL ERA of the last five years was Tampa Bay’s 3.19 mark last year, which actually was the best in all of baseball. 

That Philadelphia ERA in 2011 was disgusting, thanks to the efforts of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. But it does show how much of a crapshoot the postseason is, because the Phillies ran into Chris Carpenter twice and lost in the NLDS. 



We could debate all kinds of numbers all day long about the postseason, but the most honest conclusion that we can draw from what we are looking at here and what we have seen this season is that pitching and defense are going to play a vital role down the stretch. 

We say that every year, but if the current fields hold, seven of the top eight teams in ERA will make the playoffs. The only teams not in that group are Detroit—say hello to Verlander, Scherzer, Fister and Sanchez—Boston, a team that can fire Jon Lester, John Lackey and, if healthy, Clay Buchholz starting in a short series, and Tampa Bay with David Price, possibly Matt Moore and the electric Chris Archer. 

Even powerful lineups like Boston, Detroit and Los Angeles are going to have problems scoring runs because the pitching in this year’s postseason is so brutal. As good as San Francisco’s pitching was when the team won titles in 2010 and 2012, we could see that multiple times over in 2013. 


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted. If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments. 

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