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Monday, October 9
Does playoff experience matter?
By Keith Law
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: The team of writers from the Baseball Prospectus (tm) writes for ESPN.com Insider. This is a free preview of their work. You can check out their web site at baseballprospectus.com, where you can vote for the Internet Baseball Awards.

We're just a few days into the postseason, and all the clichès to which we're subjected every October are out in full force. Heck, one ESPN commentator said Luis Sojo was the key to the series for the Yankees. And don't get me started on radio commentator Brent Musberger. (No, Brent, you don't "drive in an RBI," you drive in a run. Isn't there a golf game you could go ruin instead?)

At the top of the list of bromides I've heard so far is the tired axiom that playoff experience means something. The most talented team in the world apparently becomes a nervous wreck once October begins, if you believe the claims on the value of playoff experience. With the White Sox bowing out ignominiously this week, we're bound to hear more about it -- regardless of the fact that Chicago entered the postseason with one healthy starting pitcher.

It's worth examining recent playoff history to see if reality bears any resemblance to the theory that inexperiened teams get the butterflies in October. To test this, I looked at the playoff results of the last 20 years (1980-1999) and placed teams in one of two categories: teams with playoff experience, defined as at least one playoff appearance in any of the previous five seasons; and those without it. I then looked at playoff series where one team had playoff experience and the other one did not.

Before we dive into the data, a bit about the method might be appropriate. Why look at the playoff experience of whole teams instead of players? Playoff statistics by player isn't that easy to accumulate -- not as simple as regular-season data, certainly, so looking at teams would make a reasonable proxy if it's accurate enough. And while player movement has accelerated in the last 20 to 25 years, we don't see many teams turning over 75 percent of their rosters in short time periods. Even the 1997 Florida Marlins, everyone's favorite example of an "experienced" inexperienced team, had only six players with previous playoff experience, three of whom had appeared in just one postseason (all in '93, coincidentally).

We'll take a look at the results by playoff round, since some differences emerged. We start with the League Championship Series. Of the 38 series examined, fifteen included exactly one team with playoff experience. Here are the results, with the team's last playoff appearance in parentheses:
Experience wins
Year  Winner               Loser
1999  Atlanta (1998)       NY Mets (1988)
1996  Atlanta (1995)       St. Louis (1987)
1996  NY Yankees (1995)    Baltimore (1983)
1993  Toronto (1992)       Chicago White Sox (1983)
1985  Kansas City (1984)   Toronto (none)
1983  Baltimore (1979)     Chicago White Sox (1959)
1981  Los Angeles (1978)   Montreal (none)
1981  NY Yankees (1980)    Oakland (1975)
1980  Philadelphia (1978)  Houston (none)

Inexperience wins Year Winner Loser 1997 Florida (none) Atlanta (1996) 1993 Philadelphia (1983) Atlanta (1992) 1991 Atlanta (1982) Pittsburgh (1990) 1988 Oakland (1981) Boston (1986) 1987 Minnesota (1965) Detroit (1984) 1984 Detroit (1972) Kansas City (1980) 1982 Milwaukee (none) California (1979)

"Experience" comes out just two ahead, which doesn't support the contention that playoff experience helps. Lack of experience certainly didn't faze the Phillies, Twins, or Brewers, all of whom were at least 10 years off their last postseason appearance, or the Marlins, who had only been in existence for five years at the time of their World Series championship. It's also worth noting that two examples came in the strike year of 1981, when teams that probably didn't belong in the postseason sneaked in anyway. This looks like a matter of random chance.

The World Series only presents seven examples in the time period covered here:
Experience wins
Year  Winner               Loser
1995  Atlanta (1993)       Cleveland (1954)
1993  Toronto (1992)       Philadelphia (1982)
1991  Minnesota (1987)     Atlanta (1982)
1988  Los Angeles (1985)   Oakland (1981)

Inexperience wins Year Winner Loser 1997 Florida (none) Cleveland (1996) 1990 Cincinnati (1976) Oakland (1989) 1987 Minnesota (1965) St. Louis (1985)

If we changed the criterion to refer only to prior World Series experience, instead of just prior playoff experience, we get the same result: five experienced winners and five inexperienced winners. No matter how you slice it, it doesn't appear that previous experience has made a difference in recent years.

Ah, but there is a rub. We don't have much Division Series history to go on, and what we have is skewed, since we're suddenly in a situation where twice as many teams make the playoffs now as did under the pre-strike system -- meaning that we're likely to see greater mismatches (No. 1 teams versus wild cards) and more inexperienced teams.
Experience wins
Year  Winner               Loser
1998  Atlanta (1997)       Chicago Cubs (1989)
1996  NY Yankees (1995)    Texas (none)
1997  Atlanta (1996)       Houston (1986)
1995  Atlanta (1993)       Colorado (none)
1995  Cincinnati (1990)    Los Angeles (1988)

Inexperience wins Year Winner Loser 1996 Baltimore (1983) Cleveland (1995) 1995 Cleveland (1954) Boston (1990)

There are a couple of possible explanations for this. One is that the difference is entirely explained by Atlanta, which holds three of the "experienced" victories and has never lost a Division Series. Another is that some of the losing teams arguably didn't belong in the playoffs - the Cubs and Rockies were wild cards playing top seeds, and the Rangers won by way of playing in a lousy division. And it's conceivable that experience or something related to it is an advantage in a short series.

Overall, however, the evidence does not support the contention that experience makes some sort of difference in the playoffs. Between the LCS and the World Series, 10 of 23 series between an "experienced" team and an "inexperienced" one went to the inexperienced club, and that disparity isn't as much as we're led to believe.

Keith Law may be reached at klaw@baseballprospectus.com.

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