There are at least two competing conventional wisdoms when it comes to Moneyball in a play-off situation. Beane believes that it's a crapshoot, that any team can win it all. Many others believe that misfit-toys teams, however many games they win during the season, can't help but falter when the going gets tough. I'd like to explore this topic a little bit.The A's just lost a five-game series against the Tigers, but it should be obvious to most that they actually lost against Verlander. He pitched 16 innings and gave up just 1 run, walking 5 and striking out 22. It seems clear to me, then, that having a True Ace in the rotation is a key element of post-season success. Parker, in contrast, went 12 2/3 and gave up 6 runs, which is actually quite good. But "quite good" is not going to be enough against a True Ace who can not only pitch well, but can also get the borderline calls in his favor.
To make matters even worse for a small-market team, the new (terrible) wildcard format means that you may have to use your precious True Ace in a one-game "play-in". This means that in order to have a True Ace pitching at least 40% of the subsequent best-of-five division series, you actually want to have two True Aces. Just Verlander and Sabathia, for instance, would cost $43 million this year, so it's not a practical solution. However, whatever happens in the ALCS, I think the Tigers would already consider their investment in Verlander a successful one this year. In my mind, he was undoubtedly the MVP of the ALDS.
As many have noted, the $44 million spent on Cabrera and Fielder was not evident in the series. If my math is correct, the duo combined to hit 9 for 41 (just .220) with 3 RBI and two walks. Cespedes alone had 6 hits and 2 RBIs and a walk. This is not to downplay good hitting, but that the best hitters didn't seem to be pivotal in this short series against good pitching. Or, put another way, while they're great to have if you could afford them, it doesn't seem to hurt as badly if you can't.
The A's also committed 3 errors in the series, 4 if you count Gallego waving Drew to third. Because the series is short, the effect of errors are magnified. I don't really blame Crisp for the game 2 loss because he dropped the ball, because either way the Tigers had first and third with one out in the ninth, facing Fielder. Even if the A's had been up a run or two at that point, you can't just say they'd have won the game if not for the error. Yet, while it's obvious that an error-prone team would not advance far in post-season, good defense would help you just as much in regular season, so this doesn't seem to be an area that a Moneyball team needs to do differently.
On to the bullpen. We won't know if the game 2 meltdown (in which Doolittle, Cook, and Balfour gave up 6 hits and 4 runs, resulting in two blown saves and a loss) was because of overuse, but we can see that Melvin trots out those three when the game is on the line, whether or not they've pitched in consecutive days. Unlike the regular season when they can be rested during lopsided games, we can almost guarantee that play-off games will all be tight, so that suggests to me a need for a deeper bullpen.
Now, it should be obvious that this isn't some heavily-researched piece, so comments and objections are most welcome, but it does seem to me that a play-off team should be designed a little differently than a regular season team. Crapshoot that it is, the very different format of the post-season series seems to mean that a team that wins more games in regular season isn't necessarily going to have the advantage in post-season. The regular season advantage may simply be that your #4 and #5 pitchers are much better than theirs, but you'll probably still lose the series.
So, just to put a position out there to discuss, to win in the post-season you need a True Ace pitcher and a deeper bullpen, especially if you have lots of rookie pitchers who have never pitched this late into the season. Flame away. :)