Going Deep: How Contenders’ Contact Profiles Shape Up for October

Tim Jackson looks at contenders' contact profiles to see which teams might be primed for a long October run or a swift exit.

The theater of October is almost upon us. As with any good drama, we’re programmed as viewers to seek which character carries an edge; which is the one we should root for or be wary of. Your mind is rolling as the popcorn becomes an extension of your hand: Who can we believe in? Who is going to come out on top? 

The truth about playoff baseball is that it’s a delightful, wild, and nearly unpredictable ride. Barely any stats from the regular season’s 162-game slugfest have any correlation at all with winning in the postseason. But there is Las Vegas, at least, which has handicapped the odds of each of the 11 current contenders at winning the World Series as such:

Contenders’ Odds to Win It All

If you fancied yourself a bettor, you might see the odds for the Cardinals or A’s as an intriguing gamble that could pay off nicely if they won it all. But even aside from that, are these odds especially surprising? The Astros, Dodgers, and Yankees at the top? Check. Other presumed division winners immediately behind them? Check. The two AL teams duking it out for the final wild-card spot toward the bottom? Check. We might see these odds shift here or there over the next 5 days, but they probably fall in line with nearly anyone’s expectations.

We could talk about this list as is, but it probably won’t lead us to consider any new possibilities. Though the regular season’s results don’t give us the kind of predictability we crave as beings who are always looking for the next moment, we do have some sense that the ability to make contact come October can pay off more than other skills. What if we looked at it that way?

Contenders’ Contact Rates

The key part here is sorting by which playoff contenders have increased their contact rate recently compared to how they’ve performed over the course of the entire season. We’re sure to be gifted our annual, unsuspected playoff heroes who become darlings for years to come, but by and large we won’t be seeing anything in October we don’t already know these teams are capable of. Any potential new shade they might be presenting becomes interesting, then. The league average is included at the bottom so you can gauge the role each playoff team’s offense has played in getting them to where they are now.

It’s compelling to see any team “better” than the Astros at anything, given how they seem to find a new way to blow our minds each year. This season, it’s become about how they’re likely to lead the league in getting strikeouts from pitchers while also leading in avoiding them as hitters, which has never been done before. If the Twins can sustain making more contact than them, let alone any other contender, it might be especially useful since they’re going to end up playing on the road more often than not if they’re to advance through the postseason.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Cardinals and Yankees tell different stories. Maybe the Cardinals continue their roll through the end of the year with the help of an aggressive approach at the plate that doesn’t necessarily prioritize contact. For as well as the Yankees have persisted through losing the most man games to injury of any team in the Majors, maybe they start to sputter out. But straight-up contact rates don’t paint the entire plate discipline picture.

Contenders’ Chase Rates

When evaluating which contenders to buy and swinging-strike rate the Astros lead the charge again.  Not a huge surprise. But Atlanta and the Rays also ranking in the top 5, as they did with added contact rate, helps build the case for them as sneaky postseason plays. Their performances make some sense. Swinging less at bad pitches usually means having more chances to hit better ones. But they’re making it work over a small sample, which is something that can define a postseason.

If Cleveland is among the leaders in contact added of late, but near the bottom of the barrel in chasing balls out of the zone, they might be leaving their retooled offense more vulnerable than we expect to the power arms that are prodigious in the playoffs. The Cardinals show up here too, but in a worse way. Like Atlanta and the Rays, their contact numbers seem to lineup fairly with their chase rate, which may portend a postseason appearance that could go as quickly as it could come.

Contenders’ Whiff Rates

Swinging strike rate provides a final, well-fitting peak at plate discipline among the playoff contenders. The Cardinals find themselves at the bottom again. They’re joined by the Yankees, and we’re reminded of the team’s health, left to wonder if it’ll be the linchpin that finally falls out once the calendar flips.

The Astros, Twins, Rays, and Atlanta find themselves at the top again, too. We can’t ignore how aspects of plate discipline play into each other, and how doing better in one category may well beget better performance in another. But considering all these aspects allows us to see the big picture. Some teams are generating a better contact profile as it may count most, marginal as it may be; while others could be getting worse.

Soon, all the world will be a stage for 10 of these 11 teams. The ultimate winner will come out on top because they generated the fewest disadvantages for themselves through their matchups. The crisp air is calling, and it won’t be long until we see who answers.

(Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire)

Tim Jackson

Tim Jackson is a writer and educator who loves pitching duels. Find him in the PL Discord, editing, managing, and podcasting with @BREAKINGPodPL here or writing at Baseball Prospectus.

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