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Thursday, October 11, 2007
Turning October logic on its head

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

Just when you thought you had October all figured out, along comes the 2007 National League Championship Series.

If the Diamondbacks are really playing the Rockies -- and we just got a press release from TBS that swears they are -- then here's what that proves:

NLCS

Rockies-Diamondbacks
series page

Everything you used to think you knew about October was wrong.

Wrong.

Defunct. Inapplicable. Flat out misguided.

Wrong.

Think about the three fundamental rules of October as we used to know them:

That's what we always told ourselves, right? Well, if all of that was etched in the October law book, then the Rockies and Diamondbacks are under arrest. They've broken every rule in that book.

These teams had next to no one on either roster who had played in these kinds of games. Their managers had never managed a game in October. The two rosters have a lower payroll combined (about $106.5 million) than the Red Sox -- by nearly $40 million.

So how did this happen? And what did it prove? Let's take a look:

No experience necessary

If the insanity of October takes a little getting used to, then how do we explain what just went on in the Division Series:

Rockies with postseason experience: 4. Phillies with postseason experience: 9.

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?
Players in NLCS with previous playoff experience:
ARIZONA
PLAYER YEARS TEAM
Eric Byrnes 2001-03 A's
Tony Clark 2004 Yankees
Juan Cruz 2003
2004
Cubs
Braves
Livan Hernandez 1997
2000-02
Marlins
Giants
COLORADO
PLAYER YEARS TEAM
LaTroy Hawkins 2002-03 Twins
Matt Herges 2003 Giants
Mark Redman 2003 Marlins
Yorvit Torrealba 2003 Giants

Diamondbacks with postseason experience: 4. Cubs with postseason experience 14.

Want to throw in the Indians? Heck, why not? They had seven players who had been through a previous Octoberfest. The Yankees had 20. Guess who won?

This shouldn't be possible. Should it?

But since it just happened, it tells us one of two things: Either we all make too much of postseason experience, or there are other qualities these teams possess that are more important than that experience.

Let's start with this: There can be a downside to postseason experience -- because not all of that experience is good. Some of it is painful.

You don't think the last few Octobers left some scars on the Yankees, for instance? If you're A-Rod, and your postseasons in pinstripes have been one giant disaster, then does that experience help you when you get back to the tournament -- or does it just create more pressure?

Feel free to cast your own vote. But that answer seems obvious. And the Yankees aren't the only team that lugs around messy postseason baggage.

"I went to the playoffs three different times with Oakland, and we never got out of the first round," said Arizona's Eric Byrnes, the Diamondback with the most October experience before this year. "So when we got up, 2-0 [against the Cubs], someone asked me if I wanted to talk about being up, 2-0. And I said, 'I'm not even going to bring it up. I've been up, 2-0, two different times and didn't win either series.' So to me, it's kind of a relief just to get out of the first round."

That same word -- "relief" -- applies to the Rockies, too, but in a different way. Just playing in the playoffs was downright relaxing, compared with the stress of having to win 14 of their last 15 games just to qualify.

"We've been playing postseason games for the last 20 games," said GM Dan O'Dowd. "So for us, when we got to the postseason, at least we knew that if we lose today, our season's not over."

The 2003 Marlins could relate to that feeling. And next thing they knew, they found themselves playing in the World Series. But that team shared another quality with the Rockies and Diamondbacks, and one that might mean more than experience.

The one common fabric I see ... is that these guys really epitomize 'team.' This is not a collection of individuals playing for a team. This is a collection of individuals playing AS a team.

--Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd

"The one common fabric I see," said O'Dowd, "and this applies to the Indians, too, is that these guys really epitomize 'team.' This is not a collection of individuals playing for a team. This is a collection of individuals playing AS a team. …

"I think in our case particularly, most of these guys grew up around each other. So from a team-concept standpoint, that's made them a tight-knit group. Sometimes, teams get to the postseason and players tend to put too much pressure on themselves. So they change their approach. They don't relax and play the way they did all year. But when everyone embraces that team concept, I think it helps them insulate themselves from that pressure."

Do teams that make it to the postseason for the first time tend to generate that feeling more than teams that get there all the time? We'd guess yes. But there's no way to quantify the accuracy of that assumption.

What we can quantify is this: This isn't the first year the least-experienced postseason teams have dominated the first round. In fact, those teams went 3-1 in last year's Division Series, too. So is postseason experience overrated? More and more, we'd say that answer is yes.

Meanwhile in the dugout

In our postseason-preview column last week, we quoted an AL executive talking about how important managers are this time of year. Now there's a concept we can all agree upon, right?

But here's what we can't agree on: The old adage that the manager with the most October experience, and most October success, is more likely to be the best manager this time of year.

Take a look at the four National League teams in this year's field. The only manager in that field who had ever won a postseason series was Lou Piniella of the Cubs. He was also, naturally, the only one of the four who had ever won the World Series. So that same executive concluded that Piniella's experience should be "a big advantage." Right. Made total sense to one and all.

But then the playoffs started. And what happened?

Piniella got matched up with Arizona's Bob Melvin, who never had managed a postseason game before last week. Piniella, on the other hand, had managed 44 of them -- and played in 43 more.

Over in the other NL series, the Rockies' Clint Hurdle also never had managed a postseason game before last week. But Phillies manager Charlie Manuel had been there, done that, with the 2001 Indians.

And we might as well bounce over to the AL for a moment and mention that, in that Indians-Yankees series, Joe Torre had a slight edge on Eric Wedge in postseason games managed, too -- by a margin of 122-0.

So how did those paragons of October managerial experience fare in those three series? They won none of them, of course.

Now what conclusions do we draw from this? Well, first off, managerial brilliance is clearly overrated -- any time of year.

"If J.C. Romero just gets Jeff Baker out [in Game 3 of the Rockies-Phillies series], Charlie Manuel isn't getting second-guessed right now for not going to a right-hander," said O'Dowd. "It always ultimately comes down to how players play."

And that's true -- on Oct. 6 or on May 6. But there is a certain urgency to games in October, and the best managers manage in a way that reflects that urgency. You don't have to do things exactly how you did them all year. You do have to win tonight. And that's a concept that inexperienced managers often don't get.

But some guys never get that, even after they've managed in the postseason six times. Others seem to catch on from day one.

"I'd use Terry Francona, in '04, as an example," said Arizona GM Josh Byrnes, who was an assistant GM in Boston back then, when the Red Sox won it all. "He managed that year against three of the most revered managers in the game -- Mike Scioscia, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa -- and he was very, very good in handling everything that postseason. So managerial experience? I don't know if I'd go along with that theory."

Hey, good call. Two of the last three World Series were one by managers (Francona and Ozzie Guillen) who had zero postseason experience. And five of the last six World Series were won by the manager with less postseason experience than the manager in the other dugout. So … anybody see a pattern here?

Payroll, schmayroll

Five years ago, Bud Selig and his favorite labor negotiators practically had us brainwashed to believe that size of payroll determined the outcome of every postseason series.

He can thank the Oakland A's for finding a thousand different ways to lose a series, just to make that premise possible. But if it worked then, it's safe to say it doesn't work anymore.

PLAYOFF PAYROLLS
TEAM *PAYROLL MLB RANK
Red Sox $143.5M 2nd
Indians $61.7M 23rd
Rockies $54.4M 25th
Diamondbacks $52.1M 26th
* -- Opening Day payrolls

The Diamondbacks have a $52 million payroll. They just beat a Cubs team with a $99.9 million payroll.

The Rockies have a $54 million payroll. They just knocked off a Phillies team with a $90 million payroll.

And over in the AL, the Indians have a $62 million payroll. That's about $160 million lower than the payroll of that Yankees team they just wiped out.

So money still talks in baseball. But three of the eight lowest-salaried teams in baseball weren't listening last week. And it isn't the first time, either. Over the last six postseasons, the team with the higher budget club has won only nine of 24 Division Series. So if that's a trend, it's the best news to hit this sport in years.

"In this postseason, payroll hasn't been a big factor," O'Dowd said. "But to sustain that success, it will always be a factor."

Balancing payroll and winning is, clearly, the flip side to this tale. To keep winning teams together, it takes more than talent. It also requires lots of check-writing. So clubs with $50 million payrolls one year often turn into teams with $70 million payrolls the next.

But that doesn't mean this October was a fluke, either. It reflects a momentous new trend in the industry:

Don't buy your own. Grow your own.

"What money usually buys you is star power," said Byrnes. "And you buy stars pretty much knowing you'll get impact performance. With our young players  guys like [Justin] Upton, [Chris] Young and [Stephen] Drew  we know they're impact talents. What's happened as the season has gone on is, that impact is starting to happen more often. And obviously, the Rockies are another team with affordable impact guys."

When impact talents have impact on Octobers, it doesn't matter anymore how much you're paying them. And that's the story of the Diamondbacks and Rockies. Fourteen of the 25 players on Arizona's roster are homegrown. Seventeen of Colorado's 25 came through the system.

That's how you get postseason bang for offseason bucks these days. And here's the proof: You no longer see teams like this trying to imitate the Yankees and Red Sox. You see the Yankees and Red Sox trying to imitate them.

The Diamondbacks and Rockies didn't go out in July and deal for somebody else's salary dumpees. They called up Upton and Ubaldo Jimenez, respectively. And it definitely didn't escape their attention, said Josh Byrnes, "that the Yankees did the same thing with [Joba] Chamberlain, and the Red Sox did it with [Jacoby] Ellsbury."

It's the influx of all these fuzz-faced rising stars that is changing the sport more than any other factor. Combine that with the increasing impact of revenue-sharing, and what do you find?

That even the golden rules of October are now feeling more outdated than the hula hoop.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.